Assisting English Learners (ELs) with Disabilities Through Collaboration
With the onset of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), expectations for achievement and learning have increased for students with disabilities and English learners (EL).
In order to meet the needs of ELs in special education it is imperative that special educators collaborate with general education staff members to provide a continuum of services that meet both the ELD and other academic needs of the student.
Collaboration strategies have been developed and researched for general and special education professionals to effectively assist EL students with mild disabilities. One such strategy is referred to as "cooperative planning" (Hudson & Fradd, 1990). An important feature of this strategy is that none of the personnel involved is recognized as having more authority than the others. All professionals serving the students in the collaborative model are considered equals within their areas of expertise and all have areas in which they can develop new skills for working with EL students. The steps in cooperative planning listed below can be implemented through formal planned procedures or through informal interactions among colleagues:
Establish meeting times
Establish and maintain rapport
Discuss demands of each instructional setting
Target individual student needs
Specify and summarize data
Discuss student information
Determine discrepancies between student skills and teacher expectations
Plan instruction intervention and monitoring system
Implement the plan and follow up as needed
Collaborative skills can be developed by meeting regularly to discuss student needs and to monitor student progress. This process can also allow educators to determine the specific interventions that lead toward success (Damico & Nye, 1991).
Learning to work cooperatively and collaboratively with others to address the needs of specific students is not easy. School personnel must have had training in applying multicultural concepts to addressing the needs of learners with disabilities and limited proficiency in English.
Collaboration across disciplines and grade levels cannot occur without an organizational structure that promotes interaction and communication. The local school level is the arena where collaboration can have an immediate impact on students. Although there is a strong movement toward collaboration, there are still many obstacles to be overcome in assisting ELs with disabilities.
Collaboration cannot be forced. When teachers voluntarily choose to collaborate, the issue of egos getting in the way is mitigated. The following research outlines the characteristics of effective collaboration. As stated by Cook & Friend’s(2010)"interpersonal collaboration is a style of direct interaction between at least two co-equal parties voluntarily engaged in shared decision making as they work toward a common goal".They clarify this definition by detailing seven defining characteristics of effective collaboration:
Collaboration is voluntary. Teachers may be required to work in close proximity, but they cannot be required to collaborate. They must make a personal choice to work collaboratively in such situations. Because collaboration is voluntary, not administratively mandated, teachers often form close, but informal, collaborative partnerships with colleagues.
Collaboration is based on Parity. Teachers who collaborate must believe that all individuals' contributions are valued equally. The amount and nature of particular teachers' contributions may vary greatly, but the teachers recognize that what they offer is integral to the collaborative effort.
Collaboration requires a shared goal. Teachers collaborate only when they share a goal. If they are working on poorly defined goals, they may be unintentionally working on different goals. When this happens, miscommunication and frustration often occur instead of collaboration.
Collaboration includes shared responsibility for key decisions. Although teachers may divide their labor when engaged in collaborative activities, each one is an equal partner in making the fundamental decisions about the activities they are undertaking. This shared responsibility reinforces the sense of parity that exists among the teachers.
Collaboration includes shared accountability for outcomes. This characteristic follows directly from shared responsibility. That is, if teachers share key decisions, they must also share accountability for the results of their decisions, whether those results are positive or negative.
Collaboration is based on shared resources. Each teacher participating in a collaborative effort contributes some type of resource. This has the effect of increasing commitment and reinforcing each professional's sense of parity. Resources may include time, expertise, space, equipment, or any other such assets.
Collaboration has emergent properties. Collaboration is based on belief in the value of shared decision making, trust, and respect among participants. However, while some degree of these elements is needed at the outset of collaborative activities, they do not have to be central characteristics of a new collaborative relationship. As teachers become more experienced with collaboration, their relationships will be characterized by the trust and respect that grow within successful collaborative relationships.
It is teachers working together for the purpose of improving their teaching that distinguishes a truly collaborative school from a school that is simply managed in a democratic fashion. Little (1982) found that more effective schools could be differentiated from less effective schools by the degree of teacher collegiality, or collaboration they practiced. She observed that collegiality is the existence of four specific behaviors:
First, teachers talk frequently, continuously, and concretely about the practice of teaching.
Second, they observe others’ teaching frequently and offer constructive feedback and critiques.
Third, they work together to plan, design, evaluate, and prepare instructional materials and curriculum.
Fourth, they teach each other about the practice of teaching.
An important aspect of the emergence of collaboration is the shift from a perception of the principal and teachers as solely responsible for educational outcomes to the perception of education as a process that includes teachers, parents, and students throughout (Stedman, 1987). The evaluation of the ways that schools involve the people who work and learn there continues as the press for multicultural equity and equality becomes more widespread and insistent.
Unfortunately, teachers are often unaware of the types of information available from their potential collaborators; thus they may not ask each other for specific information or request advice in developing instructional plans. In an informal collaborative setting, contributions from those of varying backgrounds may be neglected. The establishment of formal collaborative procedures can facilitate the exchange of information and ideas among different teachers and help foster the development of a collaborative and cooperative atmosphere that may lead to informal collaboration in the future.
Teachers engaging in collaboration must meet often in order to develop collaborative skills by discussing and monitoring student progress. This process can also allow educators to determine the specific interventions that lead toward success (Damico & Nye, 1991).
It is also beneficial for teachers, who are collaborating to provide services to ELs, to involve student families in the process. The school experience for English learners, and probably for many others, is likely to be viewed from different perspectives by the many people involved--the most extreme differences usually occurring between family members and school personnel (Casanova, 1990). Without information from the parents, many assumptions may be made about the students that do not reflect the parents' perspective. Parents can provide important information about the student's status and behavior in the family and in the community, as well as information about family and community norms.
In an era of decreasing resources and rapidly increasing student diversity, collaboration is an essential strategy for enhancing resource utilization and program cost effectiveness.
Provision of ELD Services to Students with Disabilities ELs and students with disabilities are capable of meeting high academic standards when provided appropriate learning opportunities. Appropriate instructional strategies that focus on language acquisition, scaffolding techniques and proven methodology effective with English language learners and collaboration between the English Learner programs and Special Education programs promotes academic success for all.
To achieve equality of access to special needs services and to ensure that all students are being educated adequately and effectively, both under-identification and over-identification of English learners regarding special education status must be examined, thoroughly monitored, and eventually remedied.
One study concludes that "it’s imperative to monitor the quality of educational programs offered to linguistic minority students in general, bilingual, and special education as well as the long-term consequences of placement decisions for these students” (Klinger & Artiles, 2003). All students in need of special education and related services, including students identified as English learners (EL), are to be served under the requirements of current state and federal law.
Districts need to make sustained effort to provide appropriate programs and services to English learners to ensure that they are afforded the same educational and linguistic opportunities as their peers in the least restrictive environment. A full continuum of program options should be available to ELs in special education, and to the maximum extent appropriate, they should be educated with children who are not disabled. The continuum of program options (from least restrictive to most restrictive) for providing special education services are as follows:
Regular education program with specially designed accommodations & modifications
Regular education classroom with pull-out or collaborative in-class resource specialist with or without designated instruction services (DIS) support
Regular education classroom combined with services in a special day classroom with or without DIS support
Special classes or learning centers
Home or hospital settings
Nonpublic, nonsectarian school (NPS)
State special schools
Students may receive primary language support and/or ELD in any of the above program options when determined appropriate by the IEP team. It should be clear in the IEP where and when the student will receive ELD services, the duration of the services, and who is responsible for providing the services. The IEP should also indicate which staff member(s) will be specifically working towards the “linguistically appropriate” or ELD IEP goals that will help the student acquire English.
Some recommended best practices for meeting the education needs of EL students with disabilities are:
Staff development regarding English learner educational best practices provided to special educators;
Bilingual special education programs offered and taught by dually certified teachers.
The chart on the following page presents ELD service delivery options for ELs in special education:
OVERALL CELDT SCORE/LEVEL of PROFICIENCY
Intermediate or Above
English Language Mainstream (ELM)
Services provided in a regular education classroom during mainstreaming or in a special education class
Regular classroom teacher or special educator (special education teacher or speech specialist)
Beginning or Early Intermediate
Specialized English Instruction (SEI) with SDAIE
Pull out in an ELD program within the general education classroom or in a separate setting; ELD services provided in a special education classroom
Regular classroom teacher or special educator (special education teacher or speech specialist)
ELD Service Delivery Options for Students in Special Education An important component of an IEP for an EL with disabilities is to have a comprehensive ELD program that is designed to meet their unique needs designated in the IEP. Creating the right instructional program that includes careful placement and monitoring of student success is a necessary and major component of the program. Careful individual planning put in to an EL student’s program structure, design, and placement will help ensure that he or she has optimal opportunities for his or her needs to be addressed and targeted learning to occur. This means that districts must pay careful attention to clarity of expectations about what quality instruction looks like, professional development on how to implement that vision of instruction, attention to the depth and demands of the tasks students are assigned, and curriculum materials that facilitate differentiation for varying levels of needs.
In order to meet the educational needs of ELs with disabilities, teachers (special and general educators) need training in skills such as how to build upon the familiar (what the student already knows), scaffold the unfamiliar through explicit activities, and elicit and respond to what students have to say. All of this requires that teachers adapt, shape, select from, and add to the curriculum and materials they are given. This means that schools need to invest in teachers’ knowledge and skills, as well as create the collaborative mechanisms for teachers to work together in the endeavor of designing long-term instruction for English learners.
Below are examples of possible elementary and secondary EL program service delivery options for students with disabilities: Sample Elementary School ELD/SPED Service Delivery Models
One district (Pomona Unified School District) implements the use of an ELD rotation system that groups students (including EL students with disabilities) for instruction by CELDT levels. The ELD instruction is provide to all ELs during a specified time of the school day by various staff members, to include special educators.
The initiative for establishing this type of an ELD rotation system was implemented through collaboration of district office level administrators from both the Instructional Services Division and the Special Education Department. Included in the discussion were principals, teachers, and the employee association. Key stakeholder groups reviewed the guidelines. The guidelines for this instructional delivery model were based on the following program principles:
Dedicated daily time for delivery of standards-based ELD instruction that addresses specific needs of EL students at each fluency level supported by use of quality, research-based materials that target all four domains of language with a major emphasis on building a strong oral language foundation;
Curriculum, instruction, and strategies that promote transfer between English and the native or home language and,
Emphasis throughout the curriculum is placed on research-based practices that focus on enriched oral language development.
A second model for providing ELD services at the elementary level is where the ELD services are provided in a pullout special education setting by the speech and language specialist (if the student is identified for speech & language) or in a resource room setting by special educations staff members. In this model the special education case managers/teachers engage in ongoing consultation with the general education teacher and EL department.
Lastly, ELD services for students with disabilities at the elementary level may effectively be provided via collaboration between the special and general education teacher in the general classroom setting. The special education teacher typically goes in to the general education classroom and works with a group or groups of student(s) that function as similar levels of language acquisition. It is important that not only special education students are included in the groups lead by both the general or special education teacher. As stated earlier, it is important that teachers have training and background in successful collaboration techniques.
Sample Secondary School ELD/SPED Service Delivery Models
At the secondary level, some districts have implemented model programs to serve EL students with disabilities (in the mild to moderate range) by offering a sheltered English class as the students’ core English class. During this class the students receive ELD services as appropriate based on their levels of language acquisition. This class may be taught by a special or general education teacher who has appropriate ELD instruction certification. The class may also be taught collaboratively between special education and general education staff members.
A second model often utilized at the secondary level to provide ELD services to EL students with disabilities is for the students to receive their ELD services during their general education or special education English class as appropriate for their levels of language acquisition. When implementing this type of service delivery model, staff members need to ensure that EL students have adequate access to the core English curriculum with English speaking peers.
A third model sometimes utilized by districts to provide ELD services to students with disabilities at the secondary level is to have those services provided by special education staff members during a special education support class period.
Regardless of the ELD service delivery model implemented, this should be discussed at the IEP team meeting and included in the content of the IEP. Also, it is important to note that paraprofessionals may assist with the provision of ELD services as long as these services are designed and supervised by the credentialed teacher who has appropriate certification to provide such services.
Instructional Strategies for ELs with Disabilities Research-based, early intervention services that are intensive in nature must be provided to ELs with disabilities or they may be at risk for later school failure. Early intervention means that "supplementary instructional services are provided early in students' schooling, and that they are intense enough to bring at-risk students quickly to a level at which they can profit from high-quality classroom instruction" (Madden, Slavin, Karweit, Dolan, & Wasik, 1991). Unless these students receive appropriate early academic intervention in reading, they will continue to struggle, and the gap between their achievement and that of their peers will widen over time.
Researchers (Snow et al., 1998) have identified the following skills as necessary for developing reading competence in struggling readers, to include ELs:
Phonemic awareness (i.e., the insight that language is made of individual sounds);
Concepts about print (e.g., book handling skills, purposes for reading),
Understanding the alphabetic principle (i.e., the connection between letters and speech sounds);
Decoding strategies (e.g., blending sounds, using analogies);
Reading fluency (i.e., reading quickly and accurately with expression); and
Comprehension strategies (e.g., using background knowledge to understand a passage).
Without these early skills, a reader cannot understand and construct meaning from text, which is the goal of reading. ELs and students with reading disabilities need direct instruction in the above skills areas to ensure that they acquire reading skills that will increase their later academic success.
“Several factors are critical to the success of working with English language learners, including the following:
A shared knowledge base among educators about effective ways to work with students learning English;
Recognition of the importance of the students' native language;
Collaborative school and community relationships;
Academically rich programs that integrate basic skill instruction with the teaching of higher order skills in both the native language and in English; and
Effective instruction” (Ortiz, 2001).
Five essential components of effective instruction for ELs with disabilities are:
Provide comprehensible input. Teacher’s us of gestures, pictures, demonstrations, etc. to facilitate comprehension is critical;
Draw on prior knowledge. Teachers should provide students opportunities to review previously learned concepts and then teach them to apply those concepts to new learning;
Organize curricular themes or strands. Teachers should organize the curriculum so that themes connect the curriculum across subject areas;
Provide individual guidance. Teachers should provide individual assistance and support to fill gaps in background knowledge;
Provide meaningful access to the core curriculum. Teachers must ensure that instruction and materials for ELs with disabilities deal with grade-appropriate content, concepts, and skills.
See Appendix A1, A2, A3, and A4 for specific programs that target reading and ELs.
Frequently Asked Questions Question: Is it compliant for a special education teacher (special day class or
resource specialist) to provide English Language Development services to ELs as part of the special education services?