Instructional Strategies for ELL Students with Special Education Needs

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 (ELLs) with special education needs cannot progress like average ELLs in developing English fluency. This lesson gives you some strategies with examples to assist ELLs with special needs.

Special Needs and Language Learning

Your English Language Learner (ELL) students who need special education typically lag behind their peers in developing English language skills. Not only does this frustrate these students, but you may feel challenged if you are not prepared to deal with special needs. However, you can do many things to help these students using your knowledge of teaching strategies in English as a second language.

To begin, you should know for a fact that a specific student is in the special education program at your school. Never assume that a student needs special education because of low achievement. Next, you need to gather information from the special education team about the exact disability and how it affects academic performance. Once you have this information, you can target the language skill you need to determine an instructional strategy to help the student.

For example, Jean is an ELL teacher who has just learned that her ELL student Olesya has dysgraphia. This disability causes Olesya to have difficulty with handwriting, spelling, and organizing ideas, so her English writing skills are very poor. The good news is that now that Jean knows the writing skills affected by the disability, she can prepare activities to target these skills. Jean includes easy spelling activities in her lesson plans and assists Olesya while she works. Also, Jean shows students several ways to organize their ideas before writing, such as brainstorming, making a map, and drawing a story line.

Now let's look at some ideas that you can use to help ELL students who have common special needs.

Target the Skill

As you've seen, the key to determining an instructional strategy for ELLs with special needs is to target the language skills affected by their disability. Your instructional strategy may include activities using a variety of tools that can be visual, auditory, or that promote hands-on work with language.

Remember that special needs are broad. This table includes just some of the most common special needs, how they affect English skills, and teaching strategies you may choose to address them.

Sign of delay English Skill Affected Teaching Strategy Example
Student has difficulty comprehending written content. Reading Ask comprehension check questions. Student reads a story and answers questions that check for reasons, situations, etc.
Student has difficulty reading. Reading Use visuals that illustrate the content. Student watches a video about the content.
Student has poor writing skills. Writing Teach organization of ideas. Student creates a map/chart of ideas to write.
Student cannot stay focused and/or follow directions. All skills Ask questions that get the attention of student and/or have student repeat instructions. Student listens to instructions and you ask 'What are we going to do first?'
Student has difficulty retaining information. All skills Repeat relevant information. Student answers questions about content from the day before.
Student has poor vision. Reading/writing Adjust material/class setting to make visualization easier. Student sees a PowerPoint with big letters.
Student has difficulty relating written material to sounds. All skills Drill through repetition of relevant patterns. Student reads several words that follow the same pattern, such as 'how, cow, crowd', etc.

Note that any adjustment you make for a student with special needs should work out for the entire class. This way, you do not disrupt others or change lesson plans at the last minute.

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