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Learning and Thinking Differences in English Language Learners

By Shea Dean, MA

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 thinking differences, 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 thinking differences. Or, just as often, they make the opposite mistake. They may think she has learning and thinking differences 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:

  • 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 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 thinking differences: A number of issues can cause problems with language, reading and attention. They include dyslexia, auditory processing disorder and ADHD. Other learning and thinking differences 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 thinking differences.

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:

  • 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 (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 differences. 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 thinking differences. 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 difference. 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 thinking differences. 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 thinking differences when the real issue is poor English skills.

By law, schools must rule out language acquisition issues before testing for learning and thinking differences. But various studies show that many schools don’t. Here are some possible reasons why:

  • Inaccurate testing: The tests for learning and thinking differences 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 thinking differences 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. 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.

How does the law protect you and your child?

Getting involved with your child’s education might sound difficult, especially if you don’t speak English. But it may be necessary. To get the right type of help for your child, you may have to attend a number of meetings with school personnel and monitor what the school is doing to make sure she’s getting the support she’s entitled to.

Knowing what your legal rights are can make it easier.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004 both provide certain rights for students with learning and thinking differences. NCLB also outlines specific rights for English Language Learners.

Here are some of the most important rights for you to keep in mind.

  • Universal education: Public schools must educate all school-age students. They can’t turn away students because of their immigration status or English language ability.

  • School choice: Your child’s school must raise student achievement levels by a certain amount each year. If it doesn’t for two years in a row, you can move your child to a school in your district that does. The district has to pay any transportation costs. There are other school choices you can look into, as well.

  • Privacy about your immigration status: You don’t have to answer any questions about your immigration status or show any ID to get help for your child.

  • Translation services: Schools must try to translate key school documents into your native language. While this won’t be possible for all languages, schools almost always translate into Spanish.

  • Interpreters: Schools must try to provide an interpreter when you meet with school staff members who don’t speak your native language. It’s crucial that you understand each other. So don’t be afraid to ask for an interpreter!

  • Language support programs: Schools must teach all students how to read, write, speak and understand English. If your child scores below a certain level on an English proficiency test, she will be offered language support. But her school may choose the type of instruction. Schools are not required to provide or any native language support, even though many studies have shown it’s the best way to teach ELLs.

    • What type of English-language program it uses

    • Why it’s recommending the program for your child

    • How long your child is likely to be in the program

  • Evaluation for special services: If you or your child’s teacher suspects learning and thinking differences, you have the right to ask for an educational evaluation.

  • Evidence of no language barriers: Before the school evaluates your child, it must provide proof that her struggles aren’t due to a lack of English skills.

  • Testing in your native language: Schools must do formal testing for learning and thinking differences in your child’s native language.

  • Free and appropriate education (FAPE): If the evaluation shows your child needs special education services, the school must provide supports and services to meet her needs. Learn about other rights she would have under disability laws.

How can you get answers?

It will take time and patience to get to the bottom of your child’s struggles. Here are a few good places to start:

Talk to your child’s teacher. By sharing information with your child’s teacher, you both can get a full picture of your child’s struggles. And together you can figure out what to do about them. If you haven’t already done so, provide the teacher with essential information about your child’s health and prior schooling. Ask the teacher questions, including:

  • Why do you think my child is struggling?

  • What have you or others done to address her struggles?

  • Has she responded to this extra help?

  • How is she doing compared to her peers?

  • What can I do at home to help her?

Talk to others at your child’s school. Often, schools will put together a team of professionals to help struggling students. In addition to your child’s general education teacher, the team may include your child’s ESL teacher, a school psychologist, a social worker and a speech or reading specialist. Meeting with this team will give you an even better picture of what your child needs.

Look into an educational evaluation. You or your child’s teacher can request that the school evaluate your child for learning differences. If the school agrees, you won’t have to pay for the testing. Depending on the results, your child may be able to get special supports and services to meet her needs. The school will commit to these services in writing, in either a 504 plan or an IEP. If your child is under the age of 3, you can contact your state’s early intervention system and request an evaluation free of charge. No referral is necessary.

Talk to your child’s doctor. Once you know that your child’s issues aren’t caused by a problem with learning English, this is a good place to start finding out what is going on. The doctor may be able to confirm or rule out some medical causes. You may also get a referral to a specialist for more in-depth evaluation.

Talk to a specialist. There are different professionals who can help you figure out what is behind your child’s challenges. Which specialist you see depends on your child’s symptoms.

How can your child’s school help?

Many schools have an established process for helping kids. It often starts with identifying kids who are struggling. Here are the steps involved:

  • (RTI): This is a program some schools use to screen all students and provide extra help to those who are falling behind. If your child attends a school that uses RTI, she might get small group instruction. If she doesn’t make enough progress this way, the program moves on to intensive one-on-one instruction. RTI also involves close monitoring of progress and other elements that can be helpful to you and your child.

  • Informal : These are strategies your child’s teacher can use, such as a rewards-based behavior plan or seating your child away from distractions.

  • ( ): You or your child’s teacher can request an evaluation for special education services. (The school cannot evaluate your child without your permission.) This free evaluation will determine what type of services she will get, if any. If your child is eligible for services, they’ll be outlined in the IEP.

  • : If your child doesn’t qualify for an IEP, she might still be eligible for a 504 plan. This written plan details how the school will accommodate your child’s needs. For instance, she might get extended time on tests and assignments or be allowed to take tests in a quiet room.

There are other ways a teacher can support a struggling ELL. And they don’t involve special education services or accommodations. They include:

  • Making an effort to meet parents and caregivers, learn about their concerns, and share their own concerns, despite limitations of time and language.

  • Supporting the student’s use of her native language, even if the teacher does not speak it.

  • Supporting the student’s cultural background in the classroom.

  • Recognizing the student’s strengths as well as her weaknesses.

  • Coordinating efforts with other school workers, including the school psychologist, ESL teacher, speech pathologist and others.

Can being bilingual help your child?

Being fluent in two languages has many benefits. Not only is it an asset in today’s global economy, but it’s good for your child’s brain. Being bilingual helps build your child’s executive function skills, including organization, focus and memory.

Research shows that bilingual programs—especially dual-language programs—do far better at closing the achievement gap between ELLs and native English speakers than English-only programs. And children who lose proficiency in their native language are more likely to fail out of school and suffer social isolation.

Kids in bilingual programs have an added benefit. They’re more likely to be correctly diagnosed with language-based learning differences like dyslexia. That’s because reading and writing issues are likely to show up in both languages. Only bilingual teachers will be able to recognize this telltale sign. In spite of this, some states prohibit schools from offering any kind of native language support.

It’s important to know that being taught in two languages doesn’t cause learning and thinking differences. And your child won’t be “cured” by only using only one language or by “unlearning” her native tongue. Speaking and reading to your child in your native language doesn’t hurt your child—it helps!

What can you do now?

Observe and take notes. By observing your child’s behavior, you may notice patterns. Knowing what triggers your child’s behavior can help you identify specific solutions. Your observations will also be helpful when you’re talking to your child’s doctor, teachers and specialists.

Make sure your child has a yearly medical exam. Health care providers may catch problems that are affecting your child’s learning.

Give the school all required and requested paperwork. This includes current medical forms and records from all the schools your child has attended. Even if they’re in another language or incomplete, these will help your child’s teachers understand your child better. Also provide a home language study, if you’ve filled one out. This is a questionnaire that many schools send to parents of ELLs. It contains questions about your child’s educational background and exposure to English.

Speak and read to your child in your native language. You may fear that doing this will confuse your child if she is struggling to learn English. But the opposite is true. Studies have shown that kids who can read, write, speak and understand their first language learn English more easily. They also do better in school and keep closer bonds with their families.

Don’t let language barriers stand in your way. If the school can’t provide an interpreter for school meetings, ask a friend to come with you. You can also see if a community group can provide an interpreter. It’s not a good idea to pull your children out of school to act as interpreters. Too many absences could lead to failure.

Stay on top of your child’s progress. If your child is eligible for special services, it’s important to make sure she is getting the help she needs to improve. Here’s what you can do:

  • Continue monitoring your child’s learning and behavior at home.

  • Share ongoing concerns and observations with teachers.

  • Request progress reports, including regular assessments.

  • Suggest changes to your child’s IEP or 504 plan if the services in it don’t seem to be working.

Connect with other parents. Navigating the public schools when you have a struggling ELL can be hard. But it helps to know you’re not alone. Talk to parents in similar situations. They’ll know what you’re going through and can share information and ideas.

Figuring out what’s causing your child’s struggles can take time. And making sure she gets the right help may mean getting more involved with the school. But knowing whether her issues are due to a lack of English-language skills or learning and thinking differences is the best way to get her the kind of support she needs.

Key Takeaways

  • English language learners experience learning and thinking differences at the same rate as other students.

  • Having to learn a second language doesn’t cause learning and thinking differences.

  • Native language support, parent-teacher communication and proper assessment are key to helping struggling ELLs.


native language

English as a second language

special education

bilingual education

response to intervention


Individualized Education Program


504 plan

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Share Learning and Thinking Differences in English Language Learners

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom