7 questions about testing English language learners for learning disabilities

English language learners (ELLs) and multilingual learners (MLLs) with learning disabilities benefit from early intervention. But it can be hard to get a diagnosis.

By Shea Dean, MA

Expert reviewed by Kylah Torre

English language learners (ELLs), or multilingual learners (MLLs), are no more likely to have a learning disability than native English speakers. But they’re far less likely to get an accurate and timely diagnosis.

Why is it important to test my child for learning disabilities?

Children with do best when their issues are identified and addressed early. But kids diagnosed with learning disabilities later than that can also benefit from special services in school. If your child is struggling in school and/or shows signs of learning and thinking differences in their , be sure to discuss your concerns with your child’s teachers. Together you can decide what actions to take.

When is it best to test ELL students for learning disabilities?

English language learners should not be formally tested for learning disabilities until other factors, such as trouble learning English, are ruled out. Many children simply need some extra help to catch up with their peers. Individualized instruction in the classroom (such as response to intervention) is usually the first step.

Your child’s school should help you identify the source of your child’s difficulties and help your child improve. If your child doesn’t show progress, or if the same issues occur in both English and your child’s native language, then testing for learning disabilities may be appropriate.

Does my child have to be able to read and write in English to be tested for learning disabilities?

No, your child does not have to be able to read and write in English to be tested for learning disabilities. In fact, it’s a mistake to delay testing until that point — although many schools do so. Like native English speakers, ELL students with learning disabilities benefit from early intervention, usually before third grade. But very few are proficient in English by this time.

Teachers who know your child’s native language are best equipped to notice signs of learning disabilities in both languages. They should discuss these issues with you, work with your child to resolve difficulties, and possibly refer your child for testing.

What does a good test for learning disabilities look like?

If you decide to have your child formally evaluated for learning disabilities, make sure the test is appropriate. An appropriate test is given in both your child’s native language and in English. It should be known to be reliable with English language learners. Many standardized tests are not. It should not contain questions that require knowledge of U.S. culture that ELLs may not have. It should include both an oral section and a reading section.

Often, if an ELL student has problems with basic skills in both areas and in both languages, the school will suspect the child has a learning disability. Keep in mind that multiple tests should be given to evaluate a child for learning disabilities.

What kind of help can my child get when being tested for learning disabilities in English?

ELL students should be given accommodations (certain kinds of help) when being tested for learning disabilities in English. This is true even for students who are considered “proficient” in English. Using is not cheating. It doesn’t give ELL students an advantage over native English speakers. Accommodations ensure that your child is tested on their thinking skills, not English language skills.

Accommodations include help such as explaining directions, allowing extra time to answer questions, and translating unfamiliar words and concepts. Some students may be allowed to use translation dictionaries.

Do I have a role in the testing process?

Federal law requires schools to get your written permission before testing your child for learning disabilities. Before giving permission, you may want to ask teachers what kind of extra help they gave your child and how your child responded. (Teachers should be collecting data. You can ask to see that information.)

Tell the teachers how much English your family speaks at home and what your family’s educational background is. Let them know about any medical or psychological conditions your child has. The school should provide an interpreter at meetings related to the evaluation.

What happens after testing?

After reviewing the test results, your child’s teachers, test administrators, and specialists will tell you what the testing shows. It could show that your child fits the legal definition for learning disabilities. (You may want to request that the ELL specialist review the results.) If testing doesn’t show your child has learning disabilities, you can ask for informal accommodations in the classroom. You also could challenge that testing and get testing by a professional not employed by the school district.

If the school finds your child has learning disabilities, they may suggest that your child be further evaluated for services. If they don’t offer this, you have a right to request it. They can only evaluate your child for special education services and give your child services if you give your consent.

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