It’s hard to learn classroom material when you’re still trying to learn English. That’s why most English language learners (ELLs) struggle to keep up for a while. But when your child doesn’t progress the way she should, or has problems keeping up with her peers, she may not be getting the help she needs. Learn more about the unique challenges of ELLs with learning and attention issues, and how you can help.
What challenges do ELLs face?
When your child first starts going to public school in the U.S., she has a tough task ahead of her. She must learn to read, write, speak and understand English the way it’s used in the classroom. She also has to try to keep up with her English-speaking peers in math, science and other subjects. All while getting used to a new culture.
If your child is struggling more than most, she may face an even bigger obstacle. Her teacher and school may not properly identify what’s causing her difficulty. They may think it’s a lack of English language skills when it’s really learning and attention issues. Or, just as often, they make the opposite mistake. They may think she has learning and attention issues when she just doesn’t have English language skills.
Because of these types of errors, many ELLs get the wrong kind of help, delayed help or no help at all.
Here are the most common reasons ELLs struggle in school:
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- Health issues: If your child has vision or hearing problems, it can make it even harder for her to understand what’s going on in school. But other factors can also affect learning. These include lack of sleep, stress, culture shock and poor nutrition.
- The normal ups and downs of learning a new language: Learning a new language is hard work. All students will struggle with certain concepts at times. If your child is in a supportive, well-run program, these issues can usually be solved with a little extra time and attention from her teachers.
- Lack of native language support: More than half of ELLs in U.S. public schools are taught only in English. But research shows that kids who are taught in both English and their native language for a long period of time do much better in school. In fact, children who are bilingual have better organization skills, memory and focus than kids who are fluent in only one language.
- Learning and attention issues: A number of issues can cause problems with language, reading and attention. They include dyslexia, auditory processing disorder and ADHD. Other learning and attention issues cause issues with math, problems with movement and speaking and trouble with social skills. To get extra support in school, your child will have to be evaluated for learning and attention issues.
Where do problems start for ELLs?
To succeed in school, your child must know enough English to learn the material and do the work. But many kids don’t get enough early support in learning English to reach that level. Often, their lack of English doesn’t become clear until later in grade school when the work becomes much harder.
The problem can start as soon as ELLs enter public school. By law, schools must give them an English proficiency test. This measures how well they know English. The school is also required to give parents or guardians the results of the test.
Based on their proficiency score, kids are placed in one of these two broad categories. These determine how much help they’ll get with English language skills.
- Limited English Proficient (LEP): This means the school believes they need extra help with English before they can “participate meaningfully” in an English-only classroom. This isn’t just for students who are new to the U.S. and have no English skills. In fact, 80 percent of LEP students are native-born.
- Initially Fluent English Proficient (I-FEP): This means the school believes students have enough language skills to learn in solely in English. But they may still get extra help.
Problems With Proficiency Testing
Taking the proficiency test is the first step toward getting help in school with English language skills. But there are two potential issues with this labeling system. They include:
- Inconsistency: While the same proficiency labels are used across the U.S., they don’t always mean the same thing. The definition of “proficiency” differs from state to state, district to district, and school to school. So kids with the same language abilities might get help in one school but not in another.
- Flawed testing: Some proficiency tests measure how well students use conversational English. But what really matters is their grasp of academic English. This refers to the language skills they need to think critically about what they read and experience. Students who are deemed proficient based on their conversational English often suffer later, when their lack of academic English becomes clear. But by then it can be hard for them to catch up to their peers.
If you think your child has been put in the wrong proficiency category, bring your concerns to her teacher or the school right away. This is the only way she’ll get the instruction she needs.
Problems With English Instruction
The way kids learn English in school can make all the difference in how they progress. Here are the three most common types of English instruction:
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- Fast-track to English: These programs push students to use English as quickly as possible. They offer little or no native language support. Kids may work with an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in the regular classroom (“push-in ESL”). Or they may go with the ESL teacher to a separate classroom to work on English language skills (“pull-out ESL”).
- Transitional bilingual: In these programs, teaching begins in the student’s native language. It then switches to English either in early grade school (“early exit transitional”) or middle school (“late exit transitional”). The focus is on building strong English skills. But students also gain skills in their native language.
- Dual language: These programs are also known as two-way bilingual or two-way immersion programs. They help students become fully fluent in both their native language and English. These programs have the most success in helping ELLs keep up academically with their peers.
Why are ELLs misidentified?
There are two trends in how ELLs are misidentified with having either language or learning issues. And they’re most often associated with the age of the student.
- Young kids: Up until fourth grade, ELLs tend to be underdiagnosed with learning and attention issues. This is especially true in English-only programs. Teachers may not be able to tell if the issues appear in both languages. They may assume the issues they’re seeing are due to poor English skills. Some schools treat language help and special services as an “either/or” proposition. They wait until students test out of language help to identify a learning issue. By then, they’ve missed the critical period when special services do the most good.
- Older kids: From fourth grade on, ELLs tend to be overdiagnosed with learning and attention issues. This isn’t surprising. Fourth grade is when lessons and schoolwork become much harder, and a lack of English proficiency becomes more obvious. But many schools don’t provide additional language support. Instead, they may identify kids as having learning and attention issues when the real issue is poor English skills.
By law, schools must rule out language acquisition issues before testing for learning and attention issues. But various studies show that many schools don’t. Here are some possible reasons why:
- Inaccurate testing: The tests for learning and attention issues vary from school to school and can be flawed. The tests should be written in your child’s native language, not just translated from the English test. They should be shown to be accurate for ELLs, and given by a trained ESL or bilingual professional.
- Lack of skilled staff: Teachers who aren’t bilingual can’t always tell the difference between the signs of learning and attention issues and normal language acquisition.
- Lack of resources: Data must be gathered from many sources to determine the cause of an ELL’s learning difficulties. Teachers need to keep careful records of their students’ progress. Many schools don’t have the time or the resources to do this kind of detailed work, or to accurately interpret data once it’s collected.
- Monetary incentives: Public schools get extra money from the federal government to teach students with special needs. But they get no extra money to educate ELLs. Special education funding can motivate schools to push a child into special education even when it isn’t justified.
- High-stakes testing: To get other types of government funding, schools must show that student test scores are improving. ELLs often struggle with these tests, in part because the tests are in English. But their scores are still counted unless they get a special education identification. A school might push for this to lessen the impact of low-scoring ELLs on its overall rating.
To make sure your child’s educational evaluation is as accurate as possible, you can ask the school the following:
- Is the decision to test my child supported by firsthand observations and interventions from multiple sources?
- Will the test be given in my child’s native language?
- Is the test designed for English Language Learners?
- Will a trained ESL or bilingual professional give the test?
Your school should answer “yes” to all of these questions. If it doesn’t, it’s important to find out why these best practices are not being followed.
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