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IEPs: English language learners and IEPs

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Many kids in the U.S. are learning English as an additional language. For some, it may be their second, third, or fourth language. 

Their English skills can vary widely, too. Some kids may speak conversational English and need to learn academic words, like “add” and “subtract.” And others may be learning a lot of words in English and in their home language at the same time. So there can be a lot of different starting points for what some schools call English language learners or multilingual learners. 

As a parent, it can be hard to tell if you’re seeing common challenges that come with learning a new language. Or if you're seeing signs of a learning difference, like dyslexia or ADHD.

Fortunately, schools can help in both of these areas. And part of that help could include an IEP, or Individualized Education Program. On this episode of Understood Explains, host Juliana Urtubey will share how. 


[01:52] School supports for multilingual learners 

[04:32] Myths and facts

[07:47] Evaluations and IEPs

[10:24] Your rights as a parent or guardian 

[12:00] Key takeaways

Episode transcript

Juliana: Many kids in the U.S. are learning English as an additional language. For some kids, English may be their second or third or even fourth language. Some kids may speak conversational English and need to learn academic words like "add" and "subtract," and some kids may be learning a lot of words in English and in their home language at the same time. So there can be a lot of different starting points for what some schools call English language learners. 

As a parent, it can be hard to tell if you're seeing common challenges that come with learning a new language, or if you might also be seeing signs of a learning difference like dyslexia or ADHD. Schools can help in both of these areas, and I'm going to tell you how. 

From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "Understood Explains IEPs." On this episode, we're talking about IEPs and multilingual learners. My name is Juliana Urtubey and I'm the 2021 National Teacher of the Year. I'm also an expert in special education for multilingual learners. And I'm your host for this season of "Understood Explains," which is available in English y en español. 

Before we get into this episode, a quick vocab note. A lot of schools use a term "English language learner," but I prefer the term "multilingual learner." And here's why. When I first started teaching, I had a student who I'll call Jessica. Jessica was in third grade and she spoke four languages. 

She was using American Sign Language at home with her parents, who are both deaf. She spoke Tagalog with her Lola, her grandmother from the Philippines, and Spanish with her abuelita from Mexico, and she was learning English at school. Jessica was so much more than just an English language learner. She's what I like to call linguistically gifted.

So, I want to start this episode by giving a shout out to all the multilingual learners who, like Jessica, have many strengths that aren't always fully recognized in school. 

[01:52] School supports for multilingual learners 

OK, there are two kinds of school supports I want you to know about for multilingual learners. First, there's English language development, and this is the class that helps students learn how to listen, speak, read, and write in English. Some schools call it English as a second language or ESL. There's also English as a new language, and some schools call it English for multilingual students. 

So, this class can be called many things, and it teaches two kinds of language skills that you might hear the school talk about. First, there's BICS, which is short for Basic interpersonal communication skills. BICS is a term for conversational English. It involves common words that people use in everyday life, like saying you want to eat an apple or that you can't find your backpack. Kids tend to develop these social language skills pretty quickly, often within six months to two years. 

The other set of language skills you may hear the school talk about is called CALP. This is short for cognitive academic language proficiency, and this is the term for more formal language that gets used in classrooms and textbooks. CALP covers academic language. According to Jim Cummins' BICS and CALP theory, these language skills can take a lot longer to develop. A lot of kids may have not learned these academic words in their home language in school. They may even take 5 to 7 years to reach this kind of fluency in English. 

OK, so BICS and CALP are important acronyms for parents to know, and schools can help kids develop both of these kinds of language skills. Now there's a totally different type of school service called special education. And this is designed to meet the unique needs of each child who has a disability. This might involve teaching some of the same skills that are taught in ESL class, but these skills are taught in a different way. 

Here's an example. Let's say a child is a native Spanish speaker and has dyslexia. So, the regular way of teaching reading in English class won't be enough to help them make progress. They need specialized instruction, just like a native English speaker with dyslexia would. 

Special education and ESL aren't the same thing. But your child can get supports in both if they need them, and your child can get both at the same time, like getting specialized reading instruction in Spanish while they keep working on their English skills in their language acquisition class. Later in this episode, we'll get into specifics on how to tell if your child needs English language instruction and special education, and how these services can fit together. But first, I want to spend the next section busting a few myths about disabilities.

 [04:32] Myths and facts 

Earlier this season we had a whole episode about special education myths. I want to mention four myths that are especially important for families of multilingual students to know. 

Myth number one: Speaking more than one language can confuse kids to the point of causing some sort of disability. I know a lot of families worry about this, so I want to be really clear here. Talking with your child in your native language while they're learning English can not cause a learning difference or disability. 

Our kids learn languages at different paces and that's OK. It's actually good for your child's brain to learn more than one language. So keep exposing your child to more words and ideas in your native language. The more knowledge your child builds, the more knowledge they can transfer into English. 

Myth number two: You can tell someone has a disability just by looking at them. This myth goes along with another common misconception that only kids with severe physical or intellectual disabilities qualify for special education. But the truth is that many students have disabilities like ADHD and dyslexia. 

These are hard to notice just by looking at someone, unless you see them trying to read out loud. You may not know that they have a reading disability like dyslexia, and unless you can climb inside their head and see all the thoughts racing around, you may not know that they have ADHD. 

These kinds of learning differences are very common, and kids can thrive in school if they get the right support. 

Myth number three: Kids who are well-behaved don't need more support in school. For example, in Spanish-speaking cultures, when someone is polite and kind, we say "Es muy educado." This means that they're very educated. If a child is well-behaved, many Latino families may think it's a sign that their child is doing well in school. But the truth is that many kids are quietly struggling in school. Their struggles can be overlooked. Or maybe the teacher has noticed but can't do more until you give permission. 

I know many families may think it's not their place or their role to ask the school if their child needs more support. But the key thing to remember here is that in the United States, teachers want to hear from you. Understood has a good article on why teachers want to partner with multilingual families, and tips to help you do this. I'll put a link in the show notes. 

Myth number four is about immigration enforcement. A lot of families worry that getting school services may increase the risk of getting deported. Things like meeting with the school and signing paperwork can be a big source of worry. If there's a member in the family who is undocumented. But the truth is that all children have a right to a free and public education, regardless of whether the student or their parents are citizens. And schools, as well as school bus stops are sensitive locations. This means immigration enforcement cannot happen in these places. 

Schools also have to follow rules about confidentiality. They cannot share paperwork with police or immigration enforcement unless there's a big emergency, like a threat to national security or public safety. So, remember, schools are safe places and they want to help your child succeed. Understood has an article with even more myths about special education and English language learners. I'll put a link in the show notes if you want to dive deeper. 

[07:47] Evaluations and IEPs

There are four things I want families to know about evaluations and IEPs for multilingual learners. First, you don't have to wait for your multilingual learner to be evaluated for special education. Schools often want to wait and see if skills like reading and writing improve when a student's English improves. But this could leave your child struggling for years without the right support. So, you don't have to wait. You can ask for an evaluation now. 

Second, you can help the school understand your child. As a parent, you know a lot of things about your child's history that are very important to share with the evaluation team. Sharing this information can help the team tease apart challenges that are related to language acquisition and challenges that are related to something else, like ADHD or dyslexia. And here are some of the kinds of details you can share. 

You can talk about your child's developmental milestones. For example, when your child was a baby or a toddler. Did you have any concerns about when they started walking or talking in their home language? 

You can also help by telling the school what you've been noticing at home. For example, if your child struggles with reading or following directions in your home language. Another way you can help is by telling the team about your child's schooling up until now. Did your child ever go to a school where their home language is spoken? If so, up until what grade? 

And it's also important to tell the team if your child has missed a lot of school. For example, maybe you moved around a lot. Or maybe it took a long time to get to the United States from your home country. It will help the school know if there are gaps in your child's education. 

You can also talk to your child's language instruction teacher and make sure they play a big role in the evaluation process. You can also ask the school to evaluate your child's skills in English and in your home language. 

OK, here's a third important thing I want you to know. If your child qualifies for an IEP, make sure the IEP includes both language acquisition goals and special education goals. Ask the team how much time your child will get, language services, and how much time your child will get special education services each week. The IEP should give you a really clear idea of what your child's school day will look like. 

And last but not least, ask the school if your child can get specialized instruction in subjects like reading or math in your home language. This might not be possible in every school, but you can advocate for what you think your child needs. Understood has a good article on how to help multilingual learners who are struggling in school. The article includes some really important questions to ask. I'll put a link in the show notes. 

[10:24] Your rights as a parent or guardian 

As a parent or guardian, you have many rights under special education law, and I want to highlight a few that are especially important for parents of multilingual learners. One of the most important rights involves the very beginning of the special education process. The school cannot evaluate your child for special education unless you give permission. And if your child qualifies for an IEP, the school cannot start providing special education services until you sign off on the plan. 

And this leads me to another really important right. You have the right to understand what's happening with your child's education, so you shouldn't sign off on your child's IEP until you understand and agree with what's in it. And you can also ask to get frequent updates from the IEP team. Maybe once a month or once each quarter. Think about how often you'd like to get updates. 

But right about now, you may be wondering "What if my English isn't very good?" You have the right to ask for a translator to help you understand what's happening at IEP meetings. So, if you aren't 100% comfortable speaking or understanding English, ask for a translator. The school must provide you one. 

The school also needs to translate any letters it sends to you about your child's IEP, and the school should translate your child's IEP too. If the school doesn't do this automatically, you can show them a letter from the U.S. Department of Education that says schools should translate IEPs. I'll put a link in the show notes, and if you want to learn more about special education terms and legal rights that are important for all parents to know, go back and listen to Episode 6. 

[12:00] Key takeaways

OK, before we go, let's sum up with some key takeaways. 

Learning another language cannot cause a learning difference or disability. Disabilities can be hard to notice, and even kids who are well-behaved may need more support in school. If you're multilingual, child is getting evaluated for special education. Make sure they're getting tested in English and in your home language. 

As a parent, you have a lot of rights, including having the school translate information into your native language. And finally, schools are safe spaces. Getting school services will not increase your risk of immigration enforcement. 

All right. That's it for this episode of "Understood Explains." I hope you'll join me next time when we'll talk about IEPs for young kids, for tweens, and for teens. 

You've been listening to "Understood Explains IEPs." This season was developed in partnership with UnidosUS, which is the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization. Gracias, Unidos! If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we've mentioned in the episode. 

Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at


Understood Explains IEPs was produced by Julie Rawe and Cody Nelson, with editing support by Daniella Tello-Garzon. 

Video was produced by Calvin Knie and Christoph Manuel, with support from Denver Milord.

Mixing and music by Justin D. Wright.

Ilana Millner was our production director. Margie DeSantis provided editorial support, and Whitney Reynolds was our web producer. 

For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer.

Special thanks to the team of expert advisors who helped shape this season: Shivohn Garcia, Claudia Rinaldi, and Julian Saavedra.


  • Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA

    is the 2021 National Teacher of the Year. As a special educator, she believes all kids have a right to be included and celebrated in what she calls a “joyous and just education.”

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