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7.2 English Language Learners

Dyslexia exists all over the world and in all languages. However, identifying dyslexia in students who are English Learners (ELs) is challenging. It is never appropriate to simply assume that a student is struggling with reading because they are not a native English speaker or that his or her reading and spelling problems are solely the result of struggles with a new language. Dyslexia is an equal opportunity reading problem, and students who are learning English are just as likely to have dyslexia as their native English speaking peers.

Studies have shown that ELs with reading disabilities are identified far later than their English-only peers, and this greatly impacts their ability to achieve their potential (McCardle et al., 2005). However, there is also compelling research that ELs are often misplaced into special education programs and actually have no disability (Gallego et al., 2006; Ortiz et al., 2011). In both instances, the underlying cause of under-identification for some students and over-identification for other students is the lack of understanding about how second-language acquisition takes place and limited consideration for students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds (Bastera, Trumbull, & Solano-Flores, 2011; Hoover and Klingner, 2011; Ortiz et al., 2011; Hoover and Erickson, 2015).

The characteristics of a learning disability (LD) and second-language acquisition can appear quite similar. This makes the process of identifying a learning disability such as dyslexia exceptionally challenging in this special population of students. The Colorado Department of Education has organized a list of critical questions to be answered when it is necessary to consider the relationship of culture and language to a possible educational disability such as dyslexia. The entire document, Critical Questions Regarding the Special Education Process for Culturally and/or Linguistically Diverse Learners, highlights the following questions:

Before a formal referral is made to special education, ask:

Is this an appropriate referral? Have we answered the following questions satisfactorily?

  • Has the student had appropriate support, structure, instruction for sufficient time, with enough intensity, to acquire necessary language, academic, and behavioral skills?
  • Have we used appropriate accommodations in the classroom?
  • Have we considered the child’s academic history and personal experiences?

Before beginning the assessment process, ask:

Have we considered the important factors to design the assessment?

  • What do we already know? What do we want to learn?
  • What are the English language skills of this student? How do we know?
  • Which informal tools will be useful? Who will use them?
  • Are there appropriate tests in this child’s native language? Are the norms appropriate? Does the child require the tests in his/her first language?
  • If we use an interpreter, who will he/she be? Does he/she have the appropriate level of technical language to be able to correctly interpret the assessment? Has he/she been trained in the special education assessment process and interpreting procedures?
  • Have parents received notification of rights and procedural safeguards in a language they understand?

Before determining eligibility for special education, ask:

Do we have sufficient, unbiased information to make a decision?

  • Can cultural or linguistic factors be ruled out as a primary cause of the student’s difficulties?
  • Can we document that there is a disability (most likely without the use of standardized test scores)?
  • Does the student need special education services to benefit from the general education curriculum?
  • Will parents need an interpreter for the staffing?

It is obvious from the nature of these questions that those responsible for assessing English learners for possible learning disabilities/dyslexia need to have comprehensive knowledge of language development, the acquisition of a second language, early reading development, and reading disorders, as well as a thorough knowledge of assessment tools available to them. A bilingual evaluator who speaks the student’s first language, as well as English, is invaluable to the process. This dual-language ability not only allows the evaluator to administer assessment measures in either language or both languages, but it also enhances the interpretation of results due to his/her knowledge of how the structures and pragmatics of the two languages are similar and different.


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The CDE’s most current Guidebook on Designing, Delivering and Evaluating Services for English Learners (ELs) can be found at the Colorado Department of Education’ ELD Guidebook webpage.


Since dyslexia falls within the learning disability category, a student must meet the basic criteria for having a specific learning disability (SLD). (See Chapter 8: Dyslexia and Legislation for more information.) The formal definition of SLD precludes students whose learning problems are primarily the result of cultural factors or limited English proficiency. However, either or both of these factors may coexist with an appropriate identification of SLD and a student cannot be automatically excluded from consideration for special education based on the existence of one or both of these factors. 


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 The CDE’s technical assistance document Cultural and/or Linguistic Diversity & Specific Learning Disability can be found at the CDE Specific Learning Disability Resource webpage under Cultural/Linguistic Diversity Resource Area.


Because dyslexia is found in all languages and because the root causes of dyslexia (phonological processing) and the key skills involved in word reading (letter-sound knowledge, phonic decoding, recognition of orthographic patterns) are the same among all languages with an alphabetic orthography, the assessment of dyslexia for the vast majority of ELs in Colorado will focus on these root causes and key skills. The evidence suggests that the best predictor of phonological awareness and word reading development is a student’s phonological awareness and word reading development in their first language (Kilpatrick, 2015).

Like all students suspected of having dyslexia, the English learner’s ability to manipulate speech sounds (phonological awareness) will need to be assessed. A bilingual diagnostician can assess the student’s phonology skills in his or her native language, or, if necessary, this can be done in English. However, for ELs learning to read in English, phonological awareness can be especially challenging when the student’s native language does not include some English phonemes (Antunez, 2002). In Why English Learners Struggle with Reading: Distinguishing Language Acquisition from Learning Disabilities, the authors described this in specific detail:

For example, most dialects in Spanish do not include “sh” or the short vowel sound for “i”. When this happens, the student is not accustomed to hearing these sounds, and it can be quite difficult for them to distinguish them from other sounds. Pronouncing the new sounds can be tricky for the student as phonological tasks in general become more challenging. If teachers are not aware of these challenges, they might assume the child has a deficit in auditory discrimination and/or in phonological awareness. Since these can be early signs of a learning disability, the potential for misunderstanding is great and teachers need to remember that some confusion about and the difficulty with sounds is a natural byproduct of learning a second language. ​

If the student has received formal schooling in his or her native language, the signs of dyslexia will be apparent in an assessment of reading and spelling in the first language. It is here that the evaluator needs to appreciate the differences between languages. In languages with more transparent or consistent orthographies (e.g., Spanish), dyslexia will be most apparent in the student’s speed of decoding and reading, and less about decoding accuracy. When evaluating reading skills in students who have not consistently attended school or who are too young to have received formal reading instruction in their first language, the assessment will need to be completed in English and within the context of each student’s level of English acquisition.

Through the use of a Response to Intervention (RtI) process, where instructional time is increased and intervention is intensified, the rate of improvement and intensity of instructional need can be assessed prior to any formal evaluation. As evidence of progress or lack of progress is collected, an interventionist can add valuable observational data to the process. This interval of increased intensity of instruction is a valuable component in the type of dynamic assessment process that is likely to yield the best information about the student’s language and learning needs, leading to the best instructional plan.

What is key is that ELs need explicit instruction — explicit instruction in language and explicit instruction in reading. Although there certainly are many similarities in the best instructional practices for ELs and for students who speak English as their first language (Klingner et al., 2006), there are also key differences. While the five components of reading, as identified by the National Reading Panel, are the same essential components of reading for ELs, what matters is the way instruction is adjusted to benefit ELs.