Back to top

Collaborative Support for English Learners with Disabilities

Time to complete: 

English learners (EL) with disabilities work with a variety of educator teams including general education teachers, ESL specialists and Special Education (SPED) teachers. This combination of stakeholders working to support students’ learning and reclassification journey poses both challenges and opportunities. Dr. Sara Kangas shares more about the importance of collaboration throughout this process.

As an Applied linguist, Dr. Kangas researches the educational experiences of  ELs with disabilities.  Focusing on K-12 contexts, she is particularly interested in understanding how schools can create learning environments that support both the linguistic and academic needs of these learners.  Dr. Kangas’ research also examines how educational equity for ELs with disabilities intersects with policies and school conditions.

In our previous conversation we discussed how schools are accommodating English Learners with disabilities and the impacts that EL and disability status have on reclassification or exiting.

We sat down to catch up with Dr. Kangas and learn about the latest challenges facing students and how schools can employ a collaborative approach in addressing inequities. Listen to the full conversation here, or read on to learn the key takeaways.

What challenges are ELs with disabilities currently facing in education?

  • Pause of EL and SPED department collaboration during the pandemic and resulting staffing shortages
  • Recent policy changes to address overrepresentation of SPED among long-term ELs by creating different reclassification criteria for ELs with disabilities have inadvertently created new inequities by prematurely exiting children or pushing them out before they are ready to lose those supports
  • ELs with disabilities often learning in lower tracks that were not linguistically rich environments
  • Exiting decisions being made by a single party without the right stakeholders involved

How can schools prioritize collaboration and improve their current processes for determining reclassification for SPED ELs?

Kangas points out that exiting needs to be a multi-party decision including IEP teams and parents of the students. Kangas also points out recommendations for involving the students themselves in their own trajectory and bringing them into the discussion to understand what they want in terms of services and opportunities.

“Promoting students’ own empowerment and involvement is really important for an equitable and collaborative process,” shares Kangas.

One way to prioritize collaboration in this process is to take advantage of times where those groups of educators are already together, such as during an IEP meeting, to talk about exiting. The group can look at language data, previous years’ assessment scores, as well as the learning environment of the student to start having discussions that will streamline the process when the newest testing data comes in.

There are a number of other steps schools can take to improve processes, including moving towards examining a multiplicity of data including qualitative data collected from all educators working with the student and their parents. Schools can also use equity audits to examine what access their ELs currently have to both language and SPED services, and even allow staff or outside researchers to shadow a student to get a deeper understanding of their learning environment.

What strategies can we use to ensure that these students are integrated into general education classrooms without compromising on learning in a supportive, language rich environment?

Kangas notes that while it is vital to integrate EL students with disabilities so they don’t lose access to learning with peers, grade level content and even extracurricular activities, many general education teachers may not feel adequately trained to support SPED ELs.

To make integration successful, we need to give general education teachers more tools to create these language rich opportunities. Professional learning led by ESL teachers within the school and district directly to their colleagues are amongst the most beneficial of trainings Kangas explains.

“What I like about this training is the people that are leading it are deeply familiar with the context it’s being implemented in, so it’s not a one size fits all approach. The colleague designing it is already aware of the challenges and can pivot the training to fit them.”

With proper guidance, teachers can learn to prioritize amplification of language rather than oversimplification. Kangas explains that supporting ELs with disabilities goes beyond using visuals and teaching vocabulary, but involves rich language interaction and explicit language instruction that will serve the entire class.

“It’s not an add-on or asking general education teachers to do more because doing these types of instructional moves like explicit language instruction and building in collaborative learning opportunities are strategies that truly benefit everyone.”

Episode resources: