Posted on 12/05/2014 at 01:13 PM by Liz Determan

English Language Learners (ELLs) are becoming the majority in many school districts nationwide. With that said, ELLs and those that teach them are inundated with coming up with new ways or strategies to teach ELLs. This action happens, in part, because each ELL has such a diverse background when it comes to language, educational history, and cultural perspectives. As that is mentioned, when an ELL does not make adequate growth, similar to peers, many teachers are faced with the question, “Does this student need more assistance than I can give him or her?” When this question is asked, typically the student is brought forth to a district level team meeting to think of more intense interventions that can be provided to meet his or her needs. If these interventions do not produce improvements and data indicates the student may have a learning disability, a referral for special education evaluation may take place.

Historically speaking, special education referrals for ELLs typically revolved around testing the student of concern. However, the testing is often times biased due to out-of-date norms, lack of norms, or testing that does not represent the student’s language. Thus, Artiles and Ortiz (2002), indicate a new model of assessment would require that testers rely more on observing English Language Learners than on testing them. In observations, the observer will focus on the students instructional environment (i.e., is it meeting his or her needs), student products/assessments, accommodations, and, yes, intelligence testing may need to be completed. If an intelligence test is given, best practice advocates for an IQ test to be given that measures multiple domains, thus, an interpreter will be needed. (I.e., non-verbals IQ tests are fine, but lack the verbal piece with comprehension – at times.)

With the onset of Iowa’s MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Supports) system in place, many schools that use interventions at each tier may have more opportunities to advocate for and use observations to assist ELLs. An ESL teacher, instructional coach, or personnel knowledgeable about the school’s curriculum could complete these observations. The observations should be formal and help guide instructional changes for ELLs. Artiles and Ortiz, appear to understand this way of thinking or this paradigm shift will take time, but if it can help meet the needs of ELLs, then it may be best practice!


Artiles, A. J., & Ortiz, A. A. (2002). English learners with special education needs: Identification, assessment, and instruction. McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics and by Delta Systems Co., Inc.

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