Inclusion, Interventions This study addresses the subpopulation of students with significant cognitive disabilities and who are also English language learners. The study explores the instructional experiences of this subgroup as they have complex language acquisition and academic needs. Special Education Teachers Are at the Forefront Students with significant cognitive disabilities and who are also English […]23 Nov 2023
Teaching English to Students With Special Needs
January 25, 2023
This study addresses the subpopulation of students with significant cognitive disabilities and who are also English language learners. The study explores the instructional experiences of this subgroup as they have complex language acquisition and academic needs.
Special Education Teachers Are at the Forefront
Students with significant cognitive disabilities and who are also English language learners are likely to be served primarily through special education classrooms and services without receiving routine instruction for language acquisition. This is because many may not be included in a formal language evaluation process as it is difficult to identify whether language-acquisition challenges are related to the disability of language learner status. Even highly effective special educators may lack the skills and support to provide the cultural and linguistic environment needed for this subpopulation of students.
Teachers Focus on the Disability Rather Than Language Acquisition
The authors interviewed 10 teachers who have students within this subgroup to learn about how they identify and meet the needs of their learners. The 10 participating teachers were from the east and midwestern regions of the United States. Through a semi-structured interview protocol teachers were asked about their own background, the students, and the teacher’s instruction.
Three themes emerged in the findings.
- In most cases, participants identified language status from IEPs, screeners, or prior participation in English language services. Teachers did not distinguish disability and language-related instructional needs and viewed them as linked. If it was distinguished they tended to believe the need was due to the disability rather than English language status. Special education teachers without English language training may naturally default to a disability lens when interpreting behavior.
- “Service delivery models, educational goals, and instructional strategies were largely driven by disability and were often characterized as good strategies for students with significant cognitive disabilities, regardless of their EL status.” Instructional strategies fell into two main categories: use of visuals during instruction to provide language support and providing a language-rich environment where students were fully immersed in the English language.
- Teachers found it key to take steps to maintain communication and build relationships with parents to support student learning. In most cases, this communication was a challenge due to linguistic and cultural barriers.
Special Education Teachers Need English-Language Acquisition Training
The authors suspect that the numbers of this subgroup are underrepresented. In the 10 participants’ caseload, they identified almost 50% more students than what the reported numbers suggest. There may also be some limitations in special educators’ view of students’ learning needs as most did not distinguish between disability- and language-related needs for this subgroup. This disability-dominant lens is likely compounded by the teacher’s own cultural or linguistic background and limited access to colleagues with more experience providing linguistic support.
“The majority of participants in this study described no differentiated language support for their ELs. Without these services and supports, teachers may miss students’ demonstrations of knowledge and skill or miss opportunities to deepen students’ English-language development.” Models and guidelines are needed to help educators learn how to design and implement IEPs that address students’ English language needs and goals.
In the early stages of language development, it is important to build a sufficient vocabulary base through rich and varied language experiences. The practice of using picture-supported text and text-based instruction may help. Providing a multilingual classroom environment and some instruction in their native language can also help English learners achieve better academic outcomes. The authors also highlight the value of training special education teachers on English-language development so that students can be encouraged to demonstrate their skills and understandings regardless of the language being used.
“…between <1% and 26% of students with disabilities are EL, depending on the state…”
“For ELs, close relationships with families could aid in identifying students’ knowledge, skills, and understandings in their home language and identify links between content and students’ home language and culture.”
“More research is also needed to validate alternate English-language proficiency standards: What is the minimum amount of English a student with a significant cognitive disability needs to be ready to access and make progress in the general curriculum?”
As educators, it is key to tailor service delivery models, educational goals, and instructional strategies to individual students’ needs. This is especially true of students who have a disability and language-related needs and may need services from both learning support and EAL teachers. Although many strategies that teachers used for a student with a disability may also work for English-language learners, students with language learning needs still deserve access to robust linguistic support so that their acquisition needs can be met.—Ayla Reau
Karvonen, M., Clark, A. K., Carlson, C., Wells-Moreaux, S., & Burnes, J. Approaches to instruction and assessment for students with significant cognitive disabilities who are English learners. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities (46, 4) pp. 223-239.