English Language Learners:
Are Your Child’s Reading Delays Typical or Are They Due to a Specific Learning Disability?
Research indicates that typically developing students who are English Language Learners (“ELLs”) can acquire conversational English skills within one or two years of immersion in an English-speaking environment. Developing grade and age appropriate literacy skills, however, can take anywhere between five to seven years. For a student with specific learning disability in reading, waiting five to seven years before that child is identified can be devastating to his or her educational success. Articles in a recent journal of the International Dyslexia Association, Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Fall 2014, vol. 40, no. 4, provided excellent information that could serve as guidance for parents of children who are ELLs and who are experiencing delays in learning to read.1
While the process of reading involves the application of five skills, to the careful observer, ELL students with reading disabilities can demonstrate needs as early as the first stages of reading – phonological and phonemic awareness – i.e., recognizing letters and their sounds. But, what distinguishes a typically developing ELL student who is in the process of learning a new language from an ELL student with a learning disability?
Typically developing ELL students may exhibit delays in learning to recognize letters and letter sounds of the English language. In addition, it is common for typically developing ELL students to learn to read in English at varying rates, as this can be influenced by the student’s language of origin and its similarity to the English language. For example, a student whose language of origin is similar in structure and sound to English, such as Spanish, may learn to decode in English at a faster rate than their typically developing counterpart whose language of origin is not similar to English, like Chinese. In both instances, a typically developing ELL student will be expected demonstrate progress in an upward trajectory over the course of the school year.
However, an ELL student with a reading disability will not progress at a similar rate as their typical ELL counterparts or demonstrate an upward trajectory in their progress. An ELL student with a learning disability will have great difficulty remembering letter names and sounds, despite repeated exposure. In addition, the student will have difficulty sequencing letters when reading or spelling, cannot rapidly name letters or sounds and would not transfer learned skills to new reading situations, at a pace similar to their ELL counterparts. Furthermore, if the student had difficulty learning to read in his or her language of origin and the student’s siblings are progressing at a faster rate, then it is likely that the student has a reading disability and the school district’s evaluation should not be postponed.
A disability in the area of reading comprehension, the most complex of reading skills, manifests itself differently. Although typically developing ELL students may have difficulty with reading comprehension, these students will nevertheless demonstrate an upward trajectory of progress in acquiring these skills. However, ELL students with learning disabilities in reading comprehension will have persistent difficulty learning new vocabulary, remembering words that they previously learned, making connections between known words and new words, recalling what they read or retelling the story, and making inferences from the text. The key consideration is whether, over several months in the course of one school year, the student is demonstrating progress similar to their ELL counterparts and on a positive trajectory. If not, then this circumstance would necessitate an evaluation by the school district to determine the presence of a learning disability in the area of reading comprehension.
It is also important to remember that a reading disability can occur in basic reading skills, reading comprehension, or a combination of the two. Therefore, an ELL student with a learning disability may develop excellent word reading (decoding) skills, but demonstrate great difficulty with reading comprehension. Conversely, a student with a disability in the area of decoding may demonstrate grade level reading comprehension. In either case, it is important to have your child comprehensively evaluated by their school district to gain access to interventions that will help your child succeed in their education.
Tanya A. Alvarado, Esquire has represented persons with disabilities for more than 20 years. She focuses her practice on obtaining free appropriate public education, services, and programs for children in Pennsylvania. Attorney Alvarado was born in Ecuador, South America, is fluent in Spanish, and incorporates the representation of Latin American families in her practice.