Identifying & Teaching ELL Students with Learning Disabilities

Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

English language learners without learning disabilities struggle because of language limitations. Those who have a learning disability struggle even more. This lesson discusses the identification and teaching approach as you walk through a practical example.

No Progress

Sondra teaches a class where six English language learners (ELLs) are present. Despite their language limitations, the students Andrés, Cristina, Jean-Paul, María, and Pablo make fair progress in English. Their academic achievement is not cause for serious concern; however, Yara (a Jordanian student) makes no progress in comparison with her ELL peers. Sondra notes that Yara struggles with literacy skills, especially understanding basic concepts and producing ideas in writing.

This case illustrates an important fact: two important indicators of learning disabilities in ELLs are lack of progress in learning English AND low academic achievement.

However, Sondra cannot determine whether Yara has a learning disability based only on the literacy skills issues. Sondra needs to rely on the specialized school staff. Let's go ahead and talk about identification to then explore the teaching approach to help ELLs with learning disabilities.


Very often, it is class teachers who note progress differences among ELLs. The reason is that class teachers have a lot of contact with their students and know them better than other staff members.

The professional approach to identify ELLs with learning disabilities requires formal assessment of specialized staff. To illustrate, Yara's ESL teacher, Diane, can report on Yara's progress in English. When Sondra talks to Diane, she confirms that no progress is in place, plus Diane also notes lack of understanding and ability to produce basic writing. So now Sondra has a strong basis to speak to the specialized team, which is the special education department in her school.

The special education team clarifies that, very often, ELLs who make no progress or struggle with literacy skills don't necessarily have a learning disability. An ELL can be overwhelmed by the whole experience of being new in a foreign country and, thus, emotional and social issues can affect academic progress. Either way, ESL teachers can watch out for any of the following reasonable cause to suspect a learning disability:

  1. Difficulty reading and/or comprehending content
  2. Difficulty spelling correctly
  3. Poor writing skills
  4. Poor skills to solving math word problems
  5. Difficulty staying focused and/or following directions
  6. Difficulty retaining information
  7. Difficulty establishing positive relationships with peers, teachers, etc. (this can include aggressive behavior, reluctance to socialize/speak, etc.)

In sum, a class teacher or the ESL teacher can watch out for these reasonable causes to suspect a learning disability. Then, they can consult with the special education team at the school as they have the tools (i.e. tests) to determine if a learning disability exists. Sometimes, they support the ELL with literacy skills and monitor the progress before making a disability formal assessment. It is important to keep in mind that any intervention to help an ELL must follow the school procedure, which can vary from school to school.

In our case, the special education team finds that Yara made no academic progress in Jordan either, and she also has difficulties in Arabic, her native language. The team confirms Yara has a learning disability. What to do next?


Once your school specialized team determines that an ELL student has a learning disability, the special education support is one aspect. The other aspect is how to teach ESL to those students.

First, you must monitor the ELL with a learning disability with particular attention to the area where they struggle. To illustrate, Yara's Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) highlights her problems are comprehending content and writing skills. Thus, these are the areas of focus for Diane, her ESL teacher. This means that Diane will provide Yara with ESL instruction that includes literacy skills activities. The main literacy skills include specific reading skills (phonological awareness, word level fluency, phonics, comprehension, etc.) and writing skills (correct spelling, structures, etc.).

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