Translating Translational Science to Address the Needs of English Language Learners
Annie Stutzman, MS

In the world of education and the struggle of fixing multiple broken systems, the term “fall through the cracks” is typically used to describe children with undiagnosed learning disabilities; yet there is an even larger population of children, with and without reading disabilities, whose needs are not being met. In the quest to meet the needs of students, inclusion of historically invisible populations such as English Language Learners (ELL) must be at the forefront.  

English Language Learners (ELL), or students who have limited-English proficiency and speak one or more languages other than English at home, represent 10.4 percent of the student population in the United States (NCES, 2019). This once-small population continues to grow and diversify as diasporas from numerous countries increase. According to the U.S. Department of Education, English-language-learner enrollment in K-12 schools has increased by more than 1 million students since 2000. It is impossible to ignore how the needs are not being met for droves of children with various literacy difficulties and disabilities, and those most marginalized must be the priority. This demands a holistic approach within the system and for each child. Not only must school programs triage the students who have the highest needs, but they also must consider best practices to overhaul current methodology that is not working and instate preventative measures to facilitate future success of improved programs. Ultimately, how do we begin to mend broken systems to facilitate the building of an equitable education foundation for all children? 

Questions to consider when working with ELL populations thoughtfully and in totality are: 

  • Are the specific needs of the ELL student being met?
  • Does the educational team have the knowledge and resources to properly assess the presence of a disability for an ELL student and provide appropriate supports?  assessing ELLs? 
  • Is culturally responsive education in practice? 

In an era where an ever-growing population of teachers, researchers, and families are still fighting for literacy instruction rooted in the Science of Reading for all, it is heartbreaking to realize the extent of the various large, invisible populations within these broken systems. Educational communities must embrace and elevate English Language Learners by understanding how to instruct, assess, and support their needs.  

Educational communities must embrace and elevate English Language Learners by understanding how to instruct, assess, and support their needs.

Just as explicit, structured, systematic literacy instruction (ESSLI) is necessary for children with language-based learning disabilities, yet beneficial to all learners, English Language Learners make gains with multisensory learning, which incorporates a structured literacy approach, like ESSLI. Building and sustaining a strong ELL program should involve considerations including: 

  • Certified teachers who understand the needs of ELLs 
  • High quality English language instruction with Language 1 (L1) support 
  • Multilevel reading materials to support ELLs with content knowledge 
  • Professional development opportunities to deliver culturally relevant and linguistically responsive pedagogy and support equitable conditions within the school  

(Hamayan, Marler, Sanchez-Lopez and Damico, 2013) 

Before an ELL student steps into a classroom, there must be a foundation with structures in place to support and scaffold their learning, which are unsurprisingly similar to those for non-ELLs. The National Academy of Sciences outlined components in Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures (2017) for ELL in grades K-5. 

  • Provide explicit instruction in literacy components.
  • Develop academic language during content area instruction.
  • Provide visual and verbal supports to make core content comprehensible. 
  • Encourage peer-assisted learning opportunities to build on language skills.
  • Capitalize on students’ home language, knowledge, and cultural assets, but incorporating into educational engagement.
  • Screen for language and literacy challenges and monitor progress.
  • Provide small-group academic support in literacy and English language development for students. 

Implementing practices rooted in SoR are even more vital in classrooms with ELLs.  As ELL students are identified with reading disabilities far later than their English-only peers (McCardle et al, 2005), with the added factors of underdiagnosis in elementary school and overdiagnosis in middle school, in both cases, the student is being failed by the system and limiting their ability to reach their full potential. When feasible, utilizing evidence-based instructional practices benefit ELLs with or without dyslexia (Sandman-Hurley, 2019). This is why instructional fluency in ESSLI must guide the extent of opportunity for this classroom population.  

The other crucial classroom resource is access to proper assessments and interventions. One needs the proper tools and instructional background on how to use them to guarantee a valid diagnosis. Students must be assessed in their primary language (L1). ELL students suspected of being at risk for a language-based learning disability (LBLD) should be checked for phonemic awareness problems in their first language. This approach will be inclusive for students who cannot read in their native language, as these individuals can still be tested on phonemic awareness (Hoeft & Sandman-Hurley 2019). Other features to note are if the student’s L1 is “transparent”, meaning that there is a 1:1 mapping of letter to sound correspondence. Some examples include Spanish, Hindi, and Finnish. 

One needs the proper tools and instructional background on how to use them to guarantee a valid diagnosis.

“Fluency and orthography issues are red flags for dyslexia,” while the inability to decode words is a more prominent risk factor for native English speakers. Regardless, despite the range of orthographic depth in a language, fluent literacy acquisition is predicted by phonemic awareness and rapid naming (Caravolas, Lervåg, Defior, Seidlová Málková, & Hulme, 2013; Lei et al., 2011). 

As not every EL student is literate in their native language, educators must ensure appropriate and accurate assessments, and, conversely, bilingual children should be tested for dyslexia in both languages if possible to ensure equity and reliability.   

Educators might be apprehensive to identify ELL students with an LBLD due to lack of experience or professional support in distinguishing between a learning disability and a child’s location on the continuum of learning to read in a different language. When cultural and linguistic differences are framed as deficits in the misidentification of ELL students, it impacts a broad range of people from historically marginalized groups (Scott, Haeurwas, & Brown, 2013). 

Furthermore, diagnosing EL students with dyslexia can be difficult to navigate, as the challenges of learning English can mask dyslexia risk factors while the additional issues of assessments not encompassing the populations they are being used with is limiting, exclusionary, and brings into question the validity of the data.  

Even in a culturally and linguistically diverse world, many test norms are W.E.I.R.D, or based on Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies. Sometimes consisting of more than 80% of test norm subjects, the W.E.I.R.D are not only unrepresentative of humans as a species, but on many measures they’re outliers (Azar, 2010). This means individual’s scores are scaled against and compared with the averages of this specific group of people, which may or may not be representative of all people using the measure. This barrier must be tackled, and knowledge and development of measures for specific populations must be a priority.  

Once properly diagnosed, a suitable intervention must be implemented.  

  • Direct, systematic, scaffolded instruction can be mirrored in ELL classrooms, just as in general education classrooms.  
  • Where appropriate and supported, using an evidence-based reading program in the student’s L1, such as Aprendo Leyendo for Spanish-speaking children. 
  • Lessons should have specific, targeted skills, utilizing repetition and review. 
  • Oral language and vocabulary should be implemented across subjects with cross-linguistic features explicitly taught and used as a resource for 2nd language literacy development.  
  • Ongoing progress-monitoring with direct and immediate feedback will support clarity for students and teachers.  

If ELL educators are denied access to suitable professional development, misdiagnosis, or application of an unsuitable intervention with a multilingual student is inevitable and that is an issue of exclusion and inequity.   

In addition to basic instruction and assessment support, educators must be mindful of practices that include and interweave cultural differences and nuances. This does not just include leveraging inclusive materials and classroom language, but also considering the learning environment, previous environments (including school), personal/home experiences, and reflection on instructional factors. The literacy Civil Rights crisis affects all but is a more deeply-rooted issue with higher-stakes outcomes for marginalized populations, which includes English Language Learners.  

In addition to basic instruction and assessment support, educators must be mindful of practices that include and interweave cultural differences and nuances.

Educators must address the actual needs of their students, over the standards outlined. The moment administration and politicians driving education reform decide to meet students where they are and through a culturally responsive lens, a shift will occur that tells the child, their family, and the community at-large that their achievement is a priority. 


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