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7 Questions About Testing English Language Learners for Learning Disabilities

By Shea Dean

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English language learners (ELLs) are no more likely to have learning disabilities (LD) than native English speakers. But they’re far less likely to get an accurate and timely diagnosis. Learn more about testing ELL students for LD.

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mother comforting her young daughter
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Why is it important to test my child for learning disabilities?

Children with LD do best when their issues are identified and addressed early. But kids diagnosed with LD 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 attention issues in his native language, be sure to discuss your concerns with his teachers. Together you can decide what actions to take.

young boy sitting by himself in the school cafeteria
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When is it best to test ELL students for learning disabilities?

English language learners should not be formally tested for LD 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 him improve. If your child doesn’t show progress, or if the same issues occur in both English and his native language, then testing for LD may be appropriate.

Young child and clinician or parent sitting outside on the grass talking
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Does my child have to be able to read and write in English to be tested for LD?

No, your child does not have to able to read and write in English to be tested for LD. In fact, it’s a mistake to delay testing until that point—although many schools do so. Like native English speakers, ELL students with LD 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 LD in both languages. They should discuss these issues with you, work with your child to resolve difficulties, and possibly refer him for testing.

Student at his desk with head on his hand looking bored and disengaged
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What does a good test for LD look like?

If you decide to have your child formally evaluated for LD, 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 she has a learning disability. Keep in mind that multiple tests should be given to evaluate a child for learning disabilities.

Close up of a young boy reading in the library
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What kind of help can my child get when being tested for LD in English?

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

Two women talking and working on the computer
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Do I have a role in the testing process?

Federal law requires schools to get your written permission before testing your child for LD. Before giving permission, you may want to ask teachers what kind of extra help they gave your child and how she 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.

teacher going over school paperwork with a parent
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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 she has LD, 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 LD, they may suggest that she be further evaluated for special education 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 her services if you give your consent.

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Price and availability may vary but were accurate at the time of publication, on December 16, 2015. Understood does not endorse or receive financial compensation for the sale of any of these products.

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About the Author

Portrait of Shea Dean

Shea Dean

Shea Dean, M.A., is a writer and editor who teaches English as a second language (ESL) at New York University.

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Reviewed by Kylah Torre Feb 14, 2014 Feb 14, 2014

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