5 myths about English language learners (ELLs) and special education

When English language learners (ELLs) experience challenges in school, it can be hard to figure out why. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about services and supports for students who are learning English. Knowing the facts behind these myths can help you not only debunk them, but also make changes that can result in better outcomes for your students.

Myth #1: The ability to speak English (or not) is a measure of intelligence.

Fact: It can be easy to focus on what students can’t do instead of what they can do. But consider this: English language learners are not only on the path to learning English, they’re also on their way to becoming multilingual. It’s not as unusual as you may think. Research shows that 20 percent of school-age children in the United States are bilingual. 

ELLs bring unique skills, gifts, and talents to the classroom. They often have rich background experiences, different perspectives, and the ability to navigate between multiple languages and cultures. They may also have sophisticated social-emotional skills (such as being tuned in to body language and tone of voice). 

In fact, when some of these kids were asked what they wished their teachers knew about them, they said they wanted teachers to remember that they’re intelligent. They also wanted to build meaningful relationships with their teachers. 

Strategies for successfully addressing this myth in the classroom:

Myth #2: Students who rarely speak have a speech delay or auditory processing disorder.

Fact: Many students who are starting the process of learning a new language go through a nonverbal or “silent period.” It’s not unlike when toddlers and preschoolers first acquire language. They typically understand what they hear before they learn how to speak. 

The length of the silent period when learning a new language depends on several factors. The richness of the student’s language instruction and interaction in the classroom both matter. Students’ confidence and whether they’re being encouraged to take risks are key, too. 

Even students who understand much of what they hear may still speak in short phrases or remain silent if they are not specifically engaged or don’t feel welcome to participate in the classroom. 

Strategies for successfully addressing this myth in the classroom:

  • Learn more about the stages of language acquisition and ways to support oral language development.

  • Look for ways to increase students’ speaking time in class. Expert Claudia Rinaldi, PhD, suggests timing the amount of “teacher talk time” vs. “student talk time.” She also suggests setting a goal for increasing the student talk time each week. For example, provide more “turn and talk” opportunities so students can interact with peers.

  • Give your English language learners questions they can answer ahead of time, and tell them they can try to answer during the classroom instruction. Also allow for ample time between when you ask questions and when you call on students. 

  • Look at data from the student’s most recent English language proficiency exams. Things to look for include: How do speaking and listening compare to reading and writing? Do the scores match what you’ve noticed in class? 

  • Partner with your school’s ESL teacher to learn strategies to increase student talk time, and to get support in interpreting student data.

Myth #3: Students who don’t understand spoken directions have a learning disability.

Fact: In many situations, students are actually succeeding, even though it doesn’t look like success to their teacher. Consider this scenario:

A kindergarten teacher is concerned that despite her engaging, rich use of literacy and language in the classroom, she has an English language learner who continues to struggle to tell the difference between initial consonant sounds. 

The teacher asks a bilingual colleague to observe a lesson. When she asks students for words that begin with the /t/ sound, the native English-speaking students give examples like "tooth,” “treat,” and “tower.” 

The student she’s concerned about raises his hand and says confidently, "Maestra." The teacher gently tells him that this word begins with the /m/ sound. He looks down at the carpet, confused. 

After class, the bilingual colleague explains to the kindergarten teacher that maestra is the Spanish word for “teacher.” 

This scenario is a clear example in which a student is succeeding, even though it doesn’t look like success to the teacher. At first, it looked as though the student was struggling with phonemic awareness, which can be a sign of a learning disability. 

With the support of her colleague, the teacher was able to recognize that the student understood what was being asked of him, but didn’t know enough English yet to say all the words he understood. 

Strategies for successfully addressing this myth in the classroom: 

  • Invite a bilingual colleague to observe your class or to review some student work. 

  • Learn more about making your teaching more student-friendly and easier to understand. ELL-friendly strategies can help, including things like using visuals, graphic organizers, and concrete, everyday objects.

  • Use visuals to support written instructions or have students repeat the instructions to each other.

Myth #4: ELLs will get the kinds of support they need in special education classes. 

Fact: A special education placement in and of itself is not an appropriate strategy to help English language learners succeed.

However, some schools may provide special education services to these students with the assumption that it will provide at least some help. This is often because special education services are designed to meet an individual student’s needs and provide supports that may not be available in the general education classroom. It can also happen because there are certain strategies that support both students who need specially designed instruction and English language learners. 

ELLs have specific language, literacy, and academic needs. They need exposure to a rich language environment and scaffolded support that matches their level of language proficiency. Like all students, they also need access to the same rigorous curriculum as their peers. (Ideally, they will also have some level of academic support in their native language in order to tap into existing content knowledge and prior experiences.)

This is not to say that when an English language learner experiences academic challenges, it is always only a question of language. But special education placement without careful consideration is not likely to help.

Researchers note that more traditional interventions that help students with language-based learning disabilities often do not help students acquire proficiency in a second language. In fact, it can sometimes present additional challenges by limiting access to core curriculum and focusing on discrete skills taught out of context. This constricts language usage and can make it more difficult for ELLs to understand and retain information

Strategies for successfully addressing this myth in the classroom:

  • Learn more about the differences between the goals of special education services and ESL services to better understand what each is addressing and the support they are providing students. 

  • Keep in mind that sometimes this kind of policy reflects a bigger, systemic issue at the school or district level. Nevertheless, small steps on behalf of individual students can add up to systemic change over time because you can use these small successes to advocate for bigger changes.

  • Know the services your school provides for ESL students. Talk with an ESL teacher about how the programming works and whether the (RTI)/multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) takes the needs of these learners into account. 

  • Start to identify some small areas you might like to focus on together in collaboration with the ESL teacher in order to improve outcomes for ELLs. You can also identify some bigger aspirational goals to work on over time. 

Myth #5: Schools should wait a certain amount of time before assessing an ELL for special education services.

Fact: Providing special education services to English language learners when they don’t need them focuses on overidentification. But the challenge of underidentification is also widespread. That’s when schools don’t identify students as needing special education services when they do need them.

One of the most common reasons for underidentification is the use of subjective policies that determine when to test an ELL student for special education services. Many of these policies are put in place to avoid overidentification. But one expert notes that this can result in overcorrection, leading to students not getting the help they need in a timely manner.

For example, some schools decide to wait anywhere from one to seven years before assessing an English language learner for special education. That’s because students generally take five to seven years to acquire an academic language.

Those policies don’t consider the needs of students who may be struggling all of that time. Researchers point out that students have a better opportunity to be successful in school when they’re identified sooner rather than later, and supported in culturally and linguistically responsive ways.

Strategies for success in the classroom: 

  • Ask yourself if the policies and practices at your school serve the needs of the students in front of you. If you see some areas that might need to be revisited, talk with the ESL teacher, special education staff, and other colleagues. Making even small changes can build momentum for bigger change down the road. 

  • Continue to closely monitor progress and determine the most appropriate course of action for students about whom you or a parent has ongoing concerns.

  • Advocate on behalf of the students about whom you have concerns by speaking with your school’s teacher assistance team or by making a referral for special education evaluation. 

  • Learn about the students’ native language and educational background. And ask parents if their child is showing similar challenges in the native language. Share that information with the ESL teacher, and work closely together to corroborate that this is what is happening at school as well. 

What you can do next

Becoming better informed about the needs of your English language learners is a great first step to helping them succeed. It also can help you begin to identify what’s working (or not) in your setting. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, try new things, develop new collaborative relationships, and share what works with your colleagues. 

As you learn about your students’ family background, learn more about the educational system they come from and cultural interactions as well. It allows you to interact with families in ways that respect their culture and cultural perspectives on education and learning challenges. You might just find the opportunity you’ve been looking for to make a difference for your students. 

Additional resources to explore


Hamayan, E., Marler, B., Sanchez-Lopez, C., and Damico, J. (2007). Some myths regarding ELLs and special education. In Special education considerations for English language learners: Delivering a continuum of services (pp. 7–8). Philadelphia, PA: Caslon Publishing. ©Caslon Publishing. Printed with permission on Colorín Colorado, all rights reserved.


Explore related topics

Read next