Adult ESOL Learners who Struggle: Is it Really LD? - Full Discussion Days 1-2

Adult ESOL Learners who Struggle: Is it Really LD?

September 17-22, 2010

Guest Speaker Bio | Agenda
Full Discussion: Days 1 - 2 | Full Discussion: Days 3 - 5

Full Discussion: Days 1 - 2

Guest Speaker: Robin Lovrien Schwarz
Moderator: Rochelle Kenyon, Ed.D.

[LD 5731] Discussion: Adult ESOL Learners who Struggle: Is it Really LD – Fri., Sept.17

Rochelle Kenyon

Sun Sep 12 15:18:27 EDT 2010

Hi all,

This is a reminder of the guest discussion that will begin on this List beginning Friday, Sept. 17th. I have added more information to the announcement below. Included you will now find questions for you to think about from the presenter, Robin Lovrien Schwarz, and suggested readings that you can access online.

At this time, I invite all subscribers to reflect on questions they want to submit to our guest presenter. I want to get these to her in the next few days so she has ample opportunity to prepare her answers - along with everything else she has planned on her agenda. You can submit your questions by emailing them to . Please use the Subject Line: Questions for the Guest Speaker.


Rochelle Kenyon

Guest Speaker Topic:  Adult ESOL Learners who Struggle: Is it REALLY Learning Disabilities?

Guest Speaker:  Robin Lovrien Schwarz

Robin Lovrien Schwarz, M. Sp. Ed: LD Ph.D. (Candidate), has been a teacher of English to speakers of other languages for over 40 years, and a consultant, trainer and writer in the field of learning difficulties and disabilities in adult ESOL learners for more than 20 years. She is also a reading specialist for nearly as long, having been trained at the Kingsbury Center (DC) as a remedial reading tutor. Ms. Lovrien Schwarz worked with struggling readers of all ages at the Lab School of Washington for many years, and then applied her knowledge to examining the issues of reading and reading difficulties in ESOL. She recently completed a review for NIFL’s update of Bridges to Practice (Learning to Achieve) literature on testing adult ELLS for reading and learning disabilities and an article for NIFL on adult ELLS with no prior print literacy and what research tells us about these learners as they attempt to move into literacy. Ms. Lovrien Schwarz particularly loves to continue learning about what recent research in neuroscience and in reading difficulties across languages is finding that can inform us about how our learners read and why the process is not always as smooth as we expect.

Discussion Dates:  Sept. 17-22, 2010

Tentative Agenda:

1.   Resources to preview before discussion:

2.   Questions for subscribers to consider prior to the discussion:

  • What are some of the most puzzling or frustrating behaviors you see in ESL learners that might make you think they have LD?
  • What do you see as getting in the way of student progress and learning?
  • What do you think are the values or beliefs behind these behaviors?
  • What resources or support do you have to help you determine why a learner is struggling?
  • What do you do in the way of intake or informal evaluation/assessment to know about your students’ backgrounds, interests and needs?
  • What are some instructional strategies that have worked for learners who were struggling? In what ways have these strategies helped?

3.   Questions submitted by subscribers (will be posted by subscribers)

4.   Welcome, self-introduction, and invitation to ask questions and post comments

5.   Content of Discussion:

Day 1 Content:

  • Overview of the Topic:
  • Different views of LD and how to identify
  • Why we think adult ESOL learners may have LD and what we hope for referral
  • Complexities of the adult ESOL Learner
    • How these complexities cause learners to struggle and seem to have LD
    • Implications of complexities for identification of LD in adult ESOL learner

Day 2 Content:

  • Further discussion of biggest causes for Adult ESOL learner’s struggle
    • Weak CALP (cognitive academic language proficiency)
    • Cultural differences
    • Adult language acquisition needs not recognized, met
    • Education level

Day 3 Content:

  • The controversy over using current methods & tools for identification of LD in adult ESL learners
    • The system and tools
    • What the learners bring to the testing situation
    • Problems with the referral system

Day 4 Content:

  • What we can do to PREVENT learners from beginning to struggle.
    • Thorough intake/assessment of EVERYTHING
    • Careful match of learner to class/program
    • Routine inclusion of certain instructional elements

Day 5 Content:

  • What we can do in the classroom to make sure everyone learns.
    • Differentiated instruction: learning centers
    • Personalized, relevant learner-driven learning

6.   Professional Development Outcomes:

   After participating in the guest discussion, subscribers will:

  • Know how to identify Learning Disabilities
  • Understand difference between language learning problems & Learning Disabilities
  • Explain the purpose of screening to identify Learning Disabilities
  • Understand the causes for Adult ESOL learner’s struggle
  • Understand the effect of weak CALPs
  • List 3 strategies that would be effective in the classroom

7.   Additional Resources/Websites (to be posted)

8.   Follow Up

In order to benefit from the discussion, people must be subscribed to this List. To subscribe to this free resource, go to:

Please forward the announcement to colleagues that might be interested in this important topic.

Rochelle Kenyon, Ed.D.

National Institute for Literacy/LINCS Online Facilitator

Learning Disabilities Discussion List & Communities of Practice

Center for Literacy Studies at the University of Tennessee

Program Management Collection

[LD 5752] Discussion Begins Tomorrow with Robin Lovrien Schwarz
Rochelle Kenyon

Thu Sep 16 10:22:51 EDT 2010

Hello all,

In preparation for the opening of tomorrow's discussion Adult ESOL Learners who Struggle: Is it REALLY Learning Disabilities? I am again inviting you to submit specific questions for the guest speaker to answer. Please take advantage of this opportunity. You can post your questions directly to the Discussion List by sending them to learningdisabilities@lincs.ed.govOur speaker, Robin Lovrien Schwarz, wants to add one more resource to the List that has already been sent out to you for reading. This one is the chapter she wrote for the Learning To Achieve: A Review Of The Research Literature On Serving Adults With Learning Disabilities. You can access that at .

Her work is Chapter 3 beginning on page 73 through 118. Happy reading!

Rochelle Kenyon

[LD 5753] Re: Question to Guest Speaker

Edwin Achola

Thu Sep 16 11:51:34 EDT 2010


I was wondering if there is some lever of overrepresentation of particular groups for the ones already "identified" as living with learning disabilities.


Edwin Achola

[LD 5755] Question

Joni Wallace

Thu Sep 16 13:14:46 EDT 2010

Beginning my new class of adult ESL students, my question is how to properly identify a learning disability verses miscommunication. I have taught ESL before in Haiti, but I am struggling with understanding their competency levels.


Joni Wallace

[LD 5758] Welcome to Day 1 of the Online Discussion

Rochelle Kenyon

Fri Sep 17 09:03:06 EDT 2010

Good morning current and new subscribers,

I am pleased to welcome you to the discussion on Adult ESOL Learners who Struggle: Is it REALLY Learning Disabilities? Your guest speaker, Robin Lovrien Schwarz, has an informative agenda planned. She will also answer questions and encourage you to join in to the discussion. Please feel free to comment and ask questions on the topic being discussed by emailing your message directly to

For those new subscribers participating in our online discussion for the first time, here is a short description of what you can expect. The discussion takes place online all 5 days - as the guest speaker posts messages to the List and subscribers both ask questions and respond with comments. Those messages then appear in your email's in-box. The discussion is not in real-time, so you can read your messages in the order that they are posted (each message has date & time noted), respond to messages, and ask questions at any time - as you access the posts in your email's in-box. Some people read messages before work in the morning, others during the day at work, and still others after work at home in the evening.

Also, remember that all discussion messages will be archived and can be accessed in the order they are posted at:

The first message will be posted next.  Happy reading~

Thank you,

Rochelle Kenyon

[LD 5759] Discussion on ESL and LD

Robin Schwarz

Thu Sep 16 01:36:42 EDT 2010

Hello everyone on the LD Discussion List. I am so pleased to be invited to discuss the issues around LD and adult learners of English. This topic remains a prominent one for teachers and programs who serve these learners. We are always anxious to know why some learners don’t seem to progress when others in the same class or setting do.

I will be posting tidbits of information several times a day covering the topics indicated in the outline of the discussion. I look forward to having your questions move the discussion forward as the days go along.

The broad topics I intend to cover are

• What causes adult ELLs to appear to have LD

• What the issues are that make testing of adult ELLs for LD unreliable

• Some things that can be done in the classroom to prevent learners’ difficulties, and

• Some instructional ideas that can facilitate learning for a wide range of learners.

One of the guiding principles of my work is that we as teachers need to know as much as possible about our students in order to help as wide a range of students as possible. We know that from the instructional point of view, there are two major obstacles to thinking about labeling an adult ELL as having LD: First, there is no effective way to diagnose LD in ELLs. I will discuss this issue in depth today and Sunday. And second, there is no special ed. in adult ESOL, so even if we did have a diagnosis, we would still have the students in our classrooms and probably not have specialized, bilingual, bicultural tutors to help the “identified” students learn. Thus, one of the primary goals of this discussion is to help you understand why it seems some adult ELLS struggle and how being aware of these issues can help, you manage their learning challenges better.

Your observations and reports of successful attempts to teach ELLs who have struggled will be a valuable part of the discussion.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5760] Discussion on ESL and LD

Robin Schwarz
Thu Sep 16 01:40:13 EDT 2010

First today, I will talk about different views of LD and how LD should be defined and how the adult ELL learner fits into this picture.

Different views of LD:

The notion of LD is often understood somewhat differently by different educators and researchers. For LD experts and researchers, learning disabilities are formally understood to be difficulties with processing information that are caused by a neurological impairment. However, sometimes educators think of and refer to any unusual, inexplicable, and intractable difficulty in learning as LD. This is often how adult non-native speakers of English who struggle to learn are often informally referred to. I have found in my practice over the years that when a teacher wonders if an ESL student has LD, it usually indicates that the teacher is baffled about why the student is stuck and feels that every other possible avenue has been tried to help the student learn.

Typically, the teacher wants to know how to help the student learn and possibly why the student is actually struggling, and in our experience, getting these answers usually requires a referral of some type for a diagnostic workup. However, with adult students, especially adult ESL students, arriving at just the right answer and just the right thing to do for them is exceedingly difficult due to all the complexities involved in trying to know just why a culturally different, non-native English speaking adult learner is struggling to learn.

Among those who study LD and how to identify it and help students who are having difficulty in learning, several points of view exist about how to think about LD.

The dominant point of view is the medical model. From this point of view, the problem of learning is located in the learner and an identification of the problem is sought and remedies suggested in much the way that the source of an illness is looked for and the illness addressed with various remedies. Another popular point of view that may be helpful in framing the discussion we will have over the next few days is the social model. In this model, what looks like LD is considered to be a problem of misalignment. That is, the learner and the educational setting do not fit well together, with the result that the learner does not—cannot-- thrive.

I think this is a more realistic view of the adult ESL learner who struggles because there are so many “misalignments” between the typical adult ELL and the typical American classroom and teacher. Also, as we will see later in our discussion the medical model of LD is problematic for adult ELLs because of issues with the diagnostic process and tools.

A third reason to ascribe to the social model of LD for ELLs is that ELLs themselves rarely have any notion of LD. Experience has taught me that even very educated ELLs are confused about and wary of an attempt to find out that something is wrong with the way they think or learn. Their unfamiliarity with the notion comes from the fact that the broad umbrella of LD that our culture embraces so readily is not recognized beyond our shores. Only dyslexia is relatively widely recognized, and wonderful efforts are being made all over the world to understand just what dyslexia looks like in other languages and other reading/writing systems.

But one thing we do know from science is that the incidence of true, neurologically caused dyslexia is very small—under 5% of the general population. Thus, there are many other reasons that students struggle in reading, especially adult ELLs. As exciting new theories emerge about what dyslexia really is, we understand even better that reading problems are closely tied to the degree of predictability of the writing system of a given language. We can no longer presume that if a student has reading problems in one language, she or he will have them in another language.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5762] Discussion on ESL and LD #3

Robin Schwarz

Thu Sep 16 01:41:47 EDT 2010

Now let me discuss why we teachers may think an adult ELL has LD. As I mentioned in my introduction, educators may turn to the notion of LD as a cause for learning problems when they see that a student is not making any progress when others in the same class seem to profit from the instruction and to sort out confusions about the language and so on.

Some behaviors that make us think of LD in ELLs are

• Extreme difficulty learning to read (for the first time in any language)

• Having unusual difficulty understanding grammar lessons and rules

• Having extreme difficulty with reading comprehension despite adequate decoding skills

• Making many grammar errors in speaking and/or writing and the grammar errors do not seem to get better

• Having difficulty following procedures in class; not generalizing from one activity to another of the same type

• Having excessive difficulty understanding the teacher and understanding what is going on when given oral information or directions

• Having poor oral English that is either grammatically very poor or is extremely difficult to understand or both

Can you add any others?

Of course, these kinds of behaviors cause a lot of concern for us who are teachers. But the first thing we must remember is that the non-native speaker of English who is culturally different and an adult learner of a language is VERY different from an adult native English speaking American-born person who is a veteran of our education system but who cannot learn easily.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5835] Question from Edwin Achola

Robin Schwarz

Tue Sep 21 15:54:42 EDT 2010

Edwin Achola asked if there were particular groups of people who are more frequently identified with LD than others.

Edwin-- to my knowledge, minorities in general and non-native English speakers in that subgroup are most commonly identified with special needs of some kind across the spectrum of education. Since Hispanics are the largest minority in the US, of course their numbers are very high in the ranks of those identified with special needs.

There is a very interesting school of opinion that asserts that LD is more often than not a socially constructed problem--that is, students have problems in a certain context or are seen to have problems by certain teachers who believe more in learning difficulties than others. This appears to be true for ESL learners, who are often seen as having special needs in one context but not another, or by one teacher but not others. I certainly know from deep experience that a GREAT many adult ELLS are presumed to have LD because their learning behaviors match those of persons with LD, and the other causes of their failure to learn or progress or engage in learning have not been thoroughly examined. Assessment teams in schools were originally conceived of by Alba Ortiz to do just that for young ELLs; however, as Klingner & Harry (2006) among others, found out, there are major flaws sometimes in how the teams operate. For example, if members of the team all defer to the psychologist, who has a deep seated belief that being bilingual leads to learning problems, then a lot of children seen by that team are likely to be referred for diagnosis.

As the literature to which I referred in responding to Brent indicates, the diagnosis of LD or RD or other special needs very often depends on who is doing the referring or diagnosis, or who on the assessment team has power and influence over others.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5761] Re: Question

Robin Schwarz

Fri Sep 17 10:06:44 EDT 2010

Joni--it is good you are already alert to differences in performance in your students. I suggest you read through all my messages today and tomorrow to get an idea of the kinds of issues that cause an adult English language learner (ELL) to appear to have LD. Personally, it has been my position for a long time that it is not usually accurate nor helpful to anyone to identify an adult ELL as having LD except in very rare cases.

As for your Haitian learners, you will find it very helpful to take plenty of time to get to know them so you can decide more accurately what each learner brings to the learning situation and kind of support each needs. It is important to find out soon how literate each student actually is, and whether your learners are literate only in Creole, in French or in both or in neither. Find out about their families, their lives before coming to the US, their skills and interests. It is also critical that you find out in detail what each learner needs RIGHT NOW in terms of English and literacy skills. Why, exactly, is each there? Does one need English to do better on his or her job? Is another looking to improve skills to be able to talk to a doctor or a child's teacher? Is the older lady looking for improved English to be able to talk to people in her neighborhood? We know from a LOT of research in adult ESOL that it is CRITICAL to address these immediate needs in the ESOL class if we hope to encourage these students to stay in class.

The best way to do informal evaluation is just that: informal activities during which you keep good notes or pay close attention to who needs to have things repeated several times, slowed down and phrased very simply, who gets directions the first time, who can do print-related activities easily and who cannot, and so on.

Depending on their levels of oral communication skills, you can find out all you need to know through small or large group conversations, through individual interviews or, if they ARE educated, through a very clearly worded questionnaire. A board game in which there are cards with questions is another good way to do this. One learner picks a card and asks the question to another. When the one answering is finished, he or she spins or rolls dice and moves around the board. Also, if your learners are at least low intermediate in their English skills, a survey is another GREAT way for you to get information and them to know each other. The survey can have questions such as "Who had a job in Haiti before coming to the US?" "Who has children?" and so on. That way the learners have to talk to EACH classmate to get answers. Some will figure out shortcuts for the survey, which will give you great clues as to who would manage more challenging activities.

It will also be important for you to inform yourself about Haitian culture and about the features of Haitian Creole and how those impact or interfere with comprehension and production of English sounds. One feature I have noticed myself is that typically, the Haitians pronounce /r/ very deep in the throat so that it sounds to English ears like a /w/ or sometimes a /h/. (rug can sound like hug). Wikipedia has good information on the phonological features of languages and let's hope some of the good folks in Florida will suggest resources for learning about Haitian culture and learning preferences.

As I note in one of today's messages, the actual incidence of dyslexia among the population is very small and cultural and language issues are very likely to make some adult learners appear to have other learning problems. Also, all instructional responsibility falls on the teacher anyway, so your best strategy is a good offense--be prepared for a wide range of English skills, education, world knowledge and "school" skills and organize your classroom and teaching around that reality. On Sunday and Monday, I will be discussing more teaching ideas that may be helpful to you.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5763] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD #3

Iris Broudy

Fri Sep 17 13:16:46 EDT 2010

Robin, you asked if we can add other behaviors that make us think of LD in ELLs. I occasionally have a student, as I do right now, who seems unable to reproduce the sounds he hears. This goes beyond what I would consider difficulty with pronunciation. Even when I repeat a simple phrase very slowly, several times, breaking it up into syllables, he cannot reproduce it. This man from the Dominican Republic has some difficulty with reading but he has very little schooling, so his literacy level in Spanish is also low. Interestingly, when we did a lesson that involved simple math, he was way ahead of the class, doing the computations in his head. So I wonder if he has an aural LD, and if so, what can we do to help students like this learn to speak?

Iris Broudy, ESOL/ABE Instructor

Hampden County Sheriff's Department Ludlow, MA

[LD 5766] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD #3

Robin Schwarz

Fri Sep 17 15:15:47 EDT 2010

Iris --so NICE to hear from Hampden County, MA!! Your question about the student who can barely repeat anything in English is an excellent one and this student is a terrific example of why it is easy to think that an adult ELL may have LD. (Note to all--This will be a long message!!) One field that ESL has benefited from a great deal recently is neuroscience and the study of how the brain acquires language. Studies from this field have confirmed what was theorized from observation for a long time: as the brain matures, it is increasingly less able to process speech sounds that are unfamiliar and produce speech gestures (i.e. pronounce words) from the input. It is this decreasing plasticity in processing sound that contributes to the fact that after the teen years, adult language learners almost always have an accent. (For more on how the brain acquires language, see the work of Patricia Kuhl, University of Washington).

For some individuals, processing unfamiliar speech sounds is extremely difficult, as you are observing in your student. His brain has settled into Spanish phonology and is having a hard time learning new sounds.

Some techniques that might help this person include

1) Limiting the amount and type of items you want him to repeat--that is, keep it VERY simple, one or two syllables, and pay attention to types of sounds he has more difficulty with and don't present him with too many of those at a time. I would avoid having him repeat in class or in front of others unless he asks to do this. You are responding helpfully when you slow down a LOT and repeat things carefully, sound-by-sound and syllable by syllable.

2) Work with the student to decide on a small list of words he REALLY needs to be able to say MORE clearly and correctly. Then YOU record the words saying them VERY slowly several times with lots of time between repetitions and have him practice listening to them with headphones and repeating them

3) A device that helps lots of folks who have trouble hearing individual phonemes clearly is called by one manufacturer a "Whisperphone" and another a "Phonicsphone." You can make your own in about 5 minutes by going to a building supply store and getting two PVC pipe elbows and a connecter and putting them together --use pipe about 3-4" in diameter. The device resembles an OLD FASHIONED telephone receiver (remember those???). The student holds the device to his or her ear and talks into the other end--thus he is listening to himself. This enhances auditory input wonderfully. We do not always know when students have reduced hearing (It is always important to do vision and hearing screening when any student arrives in a program and for ANYONE whom you observe to be struggling in learning.) Even if there is no measurable hearing loss, some people just do not hear phonemes all that clearly, and this device makes the sounds MUCH clearer!! Then the brain has more accurate input to work with. I would suggest having the person repeat several times. You can twist the receiver end of the device so that YOU can speak into it while he listens if he really cannot get close to an accurate pronunciation.

4) As many of you reading already know, I advocate use of minimal pair drills a lot to help learners begin to hear more clearly the critical sounds of English. Minimal pairs are two words that differ by only one sound and the sound difference changes meaning: sit/sat. Much of "grammar" in English is accomplished through changes of one phoneme as in that pair I just gave, where the change is present to past tense. Look at these: he/he's walk/walked drive/drove --all these are minimal pairs and VERY difficult for many adult learners to hear as two different words. Remember that pairs are different by one SOUND only and spelling often does not matter (look at laughed/lift). I drill these and do lots of little activities with them to help students build their ability to discriminate sounds. The short vowels are usually the hardest for them to hear; consonants are usually a problem only when the learner's first language interferes. Spanish speakers, for example, have a hard time hearing the difference between /sh/ and /ch/ and between /b/ and /v/. These might need more practice, but other consonants are not so hard to hear. A book that has all the minimal pairs of English is "Pronunciation Contrasts in English" (Nilsen & Nilsen). I use this all the time.

5) Patricia Kuhl also confirms in her research that visual input is critical to learning--if you have ever been around a baby you know that the baby watches your face closely as you speak. Have your student add to the listening process by looking at his mouth in a small mirror-- or you can start this practice using a larger mirror because often learners hold the mirror but look at YOU! Show him very carefully how to place his tongue and teeth, how much to open his mouth for different vowels, and how to round his lips etc. Be careful of information overload!! Start slowly and give him PLENTY of practice one word at a time. Change will likely take weeks at first, but may speed up as he gets the hang of these techniques.

6) Another visual input device is on Rosetta Stone-- it has a feature that permits a student to see on a graph how closely what they say matches the model the computer has said (obviously you have to have sound and headphones and a microphone for all this to happen, but that is not such a problem now). Many learners really like this and will practice a lot with a computer where they get nervous and embarrassed repeating to a teacher who corrects them all the time.

7) Other materials provide visual and auditory or just visual input as well. There are really good pronunciation videos and probably good resources online as well. I have seen some amazing flash cards that have a hologram of the mouth superimposed over the key picture for a sound. When the card is moved the mouth opens and closes according to that sound. There is a WEALTH of such things on the market, and you never know which is going to help

It is important for problems of pronunciation--and others too, with adult learners-- to pick your battles carefully. It is probably NOT necessary for your student to say most words of 5 or more syllables. He may need to say a town where he lives, street names, names of people he deals with, etc-so concentrate on those. Most Spanish speakers who are adult and who do not pronounce the final /m/ in words like "time" are not going to change that habit--but it rarely matters for those who listen to them. Other times it IS important to say the /sh/ /ch contrast correctly. This requires getting to know your learner and working with him to find out which words he REALLY needs to be able to say. Also remember that improved pronunciation in isolated words does not often transfer to speech in sentences, so practice sentences and phrases as a follow up to isolated word practice.

As always with learners who struggle in some area, focus on the weakness for only PART of the instructional time, provide very deliberate, carefully paced practice, do not move too fast or expect wildly different results too soon, and help the learner see progress in any way you can. If you start with this learner with a tape recording of himself repeating a few simple sentences or words, then date that, he can listen to it once a month and both you and he will hear that he is gradually making progress.

For other parts of the class or instructional time, focus on what he does well, and focus on gradually bringing up his literacy skills. He can do work that will support the listening AND the reading, too by practicing perceiving syllables in words in activities where he sorts pictures according to syllables (e.g. pictures of bicycle, television, microwave, suitcase, etc.) This makes a great activity for cards, wall pockets, etc., and can be transferred to a board game or bingo, too. The same types of activities can be used to build up perception of first and last sounds-- sort pictures, do bingo with pictures (you say a word that has the same SOUND as a picture on the bingo sheet) --this can easily be a matching game, too. These hands on activities are very effective in providing the variety of hands-on practice adult learners need to master aspects of language.

I will stop for now-- my head is sprouting ideas like Medusa's wig of snakes...!!

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5769] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD #3

Iris Broudy

Fri Sep 17 15:55:54 EDT 2010


Thanks so much for your long, thoughtful, and very useful response. I'm sure the techniques you suggested will be helpful for many of us. A lot of this work requires one-on-one time with a student, which isn't always easy. But I expect to be getting a peer tutor soon who has ESL experience, so I see some ways I may be able to use him now. And as it happens, we have the new version of Rosetta Stone, so it might make sense to have my student focus on the visual-input pronunciation feature. When it comes up in the middle of all the other activities, he keeps repeating and failing.

Iris Broudy

Hampden County Sheriff's Department, Ludlow, MA

[LD 5765] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD #3

Raquel Rice

Fri Sep 17 14:26:14 EDT 2010


As an ESL student and Spanish being my first language, I find it very useful to use the IPA when teaching pronunciation. It really helps the Ss get an idea where and how the sounds are produced in English. Repetition is good, but you want to make sure they know what is the sound and how is produced before they mimic you. Take for example TH, sounds in Spanish do not exist so it is always a struggle for us to imitate those sounds.

Raquel Rice, JTE Instructor

Seattle Goodwill, Mount Vernon, WA

[LD 5779] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD #3

Robin Schwarz

Fri Sep 17 21:58:11 EDT 2010

Raquel--using the International Phonetics Alphabet (IPA) with well-educated students (high school or beyond) is often a good idea. However, students with less education may be seriously confused about learning what amounts to another alphabet and about the fact that some letters written in the IPA look like regular letters but have a very different sound (for example /i/).

It is often difficult for those of us with a lot of education to put ourselves in the shoes and minds of the much less educated--a problem that has caused many adult ELLs (in adult ESOL, not in Higher ed ESL or other settings where adults learn English)a lot of anguish.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5764] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD #3

Brant Hayenga

Fri Sep 17 13:29:46 EDT 2010


I work in elementary schools, and as such, my comments might reflect on children more than adults, but the following points seem to apply, as many learning differences are persistent across the individual's life span.

1.   Many of the characteristic behaviors listed below could indicate a specific language impairment (SLI) rather than a specific learning disability (SLD). In the public schools (and federal regulations) the two are (mostly) separated. SLI greatly impacts ability to learn, and in this discussion might be lumped together with LD.

2.   SLD and SLI have been shown to be highly comorbid (estimates range from 35-67%) of SLD individuals are also comorbid with SLI. Is it then not unusual for an adult with a reading LD to also have a language impairment (which would affect L1 and L2).

3.   SLD and SLI are highly heritable. My experience in the schools would indicate that about 80% of the LD students I evaluate have one or both parents that had similar problems in school. If the family history includes cousins, aunts, uncles, and a broader genetic circle, the percentage climbs closer to 90%. It is very unusual for a student that I have identified with a learning disability to not have a family history of LD. I would add family history to the list of characteristics (I realize with immigrants from rural areas where formal education is not always available, a family history of learning disabilities is not always available).

4.   Spelling problems are very common with LD individuals.

5.   Attentional problems are very common with LD individuals.

6.   Working memory problems are very common with individuals.

7.   Self-confidence problems are common in LD individuals.


Brant Hayenga, Educational Diagnostician

Stapleton Elementary/Rio Rancho Middle School

[LD 5772] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD #3

Robin Schwarz

Fri Sep 17 17:22:17 EDT 2010

Brant-- thank you for your comments. As you will learn over the next few days, there are MANY reasons that adult ELLs appear to have LD but really do not. It is challenging in the extreme to find appropriate tools to diagnose something like Specific Language Impairment (SLI). The things you say about SLI are true, but note also the following (and remember that we are talking about ADULTS learning English, many of whom have limited or no formal education at all)

1) Spelling problems are EXTREMELY common in the normal English language learner; furthermore, spelling problems are not in and of themselves a symptom of LD.

2) Attentional problems occur among adult ELLS as they do in any population; attention problems are relatively easy to identify and easy to accommodate as well as easy to help the learner learn to manage. To the extent that attention problems interfere with learning, they are a learning difficulty, but if managed, do not prevent learning. Furthermore, it has been documented that when adult ELLs are not getting their immediate learning needs met or when they do not know what is going on in a text, their attention wanders significantly. Many other factors can impact attention, among them having much younger learners in a class with much older learners (the young ones get very impatient), visual stress syndrome, which causes reading to be physically uncomfortable for many, and fatigue, which many adult learners suffer from because of difficult working schedules. Much sorting out needs to happen when attention problems manifest in class.

3) Working memory has been shown in studies to be significantly affected by a) a English language learner's familiarity with a topic or task and b) by the degree to which auditory input or visual input is effective. As you saw in the previous discussion about the gentleman with poor ability to repeat words, adult language learners may be especially challenged by getting accurate auditory input due to the normal maturation processes of the brain. Persons with impaired vision which impacts reading or with visual stress syndrome, which makes reading laborious, may exhibit poor working memory for visually received information as a result.

4) Low self-confidence is a very prominent topic in adult second language acquisition. There are a number of causes for low self-confidence in language learners, among them problems such as Iris described in the gentleman who could not hear and repeat words very well. Low self-confidence is both a contributor to and the result of challenges in language learning. Persons who have never been to school, for example, are often very unsure of themselves as learners; similarly, elderly adult ELLs are often nervous because they may believe themselves to be too old to learn; and of course, many adult ELLs lose confidence in their ability to learn if the class they are in is over their heads linguistically, moves too fast, is not meeting their needs, or is addressing topics the learner either does not care about or knows nothing about.

I am glad that you note that it might be difficult to know about a family history of LD if the parents have never been to school. You will also see in a posting today that it is difficult to know if there is a history of LD if the country where you are from does not recognize LD and no tests exist in the language you speak and may or may not be literate in.

There is LOT of excellent literature about ELLs and LD and related issues. One of my favorites about K-12 learners is "English Language Learners with Special Education Needs" by Artiles and Ortiz. (Published by Delta Systems with The Center for Applied Linguistics and ERIC). Both of these authors have been prominent researchers and writers about identification, assessment and instruction of ELLs who do not fit the mainstream paradigm in education in the US.

It is so important for everyone who works with ELLS in any capacity to continue to learn as much as possible about all the aspects of language acquisition, culture, language interference and all the other topics that relate to English language learners. With this knowledge, we can avoid the pitfalls of inappropriate referrals, misdiagnosis and mislabeling of ELLS as LD, and be more effective in providing teaching that addresses the actual needs of ELLs.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5767] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD #3

Mary Howland

Fri Sep 17 15:33:31 EDT 2010

This is so true and are the very things I am concerned about with several students right now. I am very interested to read more of the discussion.

Thank you,

Mary Blythe Howland, M.Ed., ESL Instructor

Beaumont Adult School

[LD 5771] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD #3

Richard Kline

Fri Sep 17 17:01:10 EDT 2010


I am a new subscriber to this site. I have been teaching beginning and low intermediate ESL for 5+ years. The thing I struggle with the most, besides some of those things on your list, is the inability of my lowest students to retain a lesson from one day to the next, not to mention from week to week, despite the amount of review.

I have three students out of 15 regulars who fall into this area. I've been working with them for over a year, 2+ years in one case. I do see progress but it is very slow.

Examples of what I mean:

Inability to retain and recite the alphabet (even with the ABC song). (they do finally recognize letters)

  1. Inability to write upper and lower case letters in order without some confusion;
  2. Inability to count or write numbers in order, and
  3. Inability to remember days of the week, months of the year, seasons etc.

Two of them were not allowed an education in their countries of origin, Iraq and Somalia. They were assessed when they started the program by a standard picture test or oral test. They recognize some sight words. But, retention of new material is very difficult. The other student has emotional scars and difficulty concentrating. They are all in their middle to late 30s and 40s.

I hesitate to label them learning disabled as they have all shown life-skills competencies. (Driver licenses, holding jobs, raising families, buying groceries etc.) One of them has raised four children, two now in college...and no learning disabilities in any of her children.

They continue to get along in society using mostly nouns strung together and gestures to communicate. They do not recognize errors even when I repeat back to them what they should have said. (Use "I" not "Me" go to the grocery store to buy milk.")

I've been waiting for a breakthrough that doesn't seem to come as it has with other students. What have other teachers done in similar circumstances?


North Kansas City School District, Adult Education

[LD 5795] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD #3

Robin Schwarz

Fri Sep 17 22:55:32 EDT 2010

Bernie-- you are a patient and kind teacher. These are indeed the kinds of students whom we could truly suspect of having LD--but, as I have said in opening remarks, what would labeling them LD change?? You would have to teach them in pretty much the same way as you are doing and your class is their only learning option. In my experience, it is better to work on the English and the literacy skills very slowly than to place students like this with a remedial tutor who does not know about ESL. And as for the student with emotional scars, it is good you are already aware that these scars will always impact this person's ability to benefit from instruction in some way or another.

It is also VERY important that you have determined that they function well in their lives outside class. Rarely, we find out that a learner who essentially does not profit from anything in class is already known by his or her family to have significant cognitive problems, but the family wants the person out in the world. In cases such as these, the teacher can only do his or her best to include the student in the class activities in realistic ways.

For your three, I would not suspect this at all. I have no easy answers at all to the challenges, but here are some thoughts.

First, it is CRITICAL for you get hearing and vision screening for these students. It is entirely possible that they are struggling with impairments or reductions in these functions and don't actually know it. If you cannot find someone who can test them with pictures and letters only, at least be sure there is a translator with them during testing.

It is entirely normal for non-literate learners to not pick up on "correct" sentences when you repeat them. These learners have no sense of what "correct" is in language since they do not yet know, really, WHAT language is. That is what is gained with literacy---an understanding of language as a THING that can be thought about and manipulated.

Also, since these adults had no prior schooling, they may still be very confused about how the letters you are teaching them relate to words. The current, research-based wisdom about teaching non-literate adults to read leans heavily to using a whole-word approach for a long time. Teach them a few words at a time that they need to know or want to know--these will be sight words. They can then read those, copy those, unscramble those, and sort by some common factor-- same first letter or last letter, for example.

Similarly, the numbers and days of the week mean very little without a meaningful context. They are just lists of words and are difficult to get a handle on for non-literate learners. Have you asked if they can do any of these things in their own languages?? If so, then that is the avenue to follow.

Relevance is the governing principle of teaching adult learners in general and these learners in particular. It has to be 1,000% meaningful for them to hang on to it. That is why they can remember the nouns they string together to communicate--THOSE words are essential to their daily survival!!

One technique that has proven quite successful for non-literate adults is the Language Experience Approach, where you write down a story that learners more or less dictate to you--and you leave it mostly in their version of the language at first. Then you create dozens of different activities around that language. It is helpful to create a simple book with pictures. I have several of these from fantastic program in Milwaukee that works with non-literate Somalis and Hmong. They are wonderful books and really boost the desire to continue with the difficult--VERY difficult--task of becoming literate in a language you do not know well. There is a video project I learned of last academic year in which videos of teachers teaching lessons are presented. Each is an hour long and the first one was about a teacher in Minneapolis teaching a lesson to learners with "emerging literacy"-- perhaps you can track it down. Anyone in Minneapolis know about this project??

Also another fantastic resource is "Making it Real"--a handbook for teachers from the Tacoma Community House in Tacoma Washington. It is excellent. If you cannot locate it, contact me offline and I will send you an electronic version. It is available to the public to download. I don't know the URL for it.

Florida, too, has some wonderful materials and guides for teaching the non-literate. Perhaps if you go to the English Language Learning NIFL list, you can contact others who have materials you need.

The most important thing is to think of each of these learners as the individuals they are, compile evidence of victories, and continue to help each them strive little by little for improved English in whatever ways work for them. That is the essence of remedial or special education, and it is the reality with these students.

The comments I made to Iris about helping adults with better pronunciation and listening comprehension should apply to your learners, too.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5775] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD #3

Val Yule

Fri Sep 17 19:15:09 EDT 2010


re and, as it happens, we have the new version of Rosetta Stone,  Yes, We have it in the electronic media, and we could also have it in Spelling Without Traps, putting on one side of the page conventional spelling, and on the other side, taking its traps out. This would help thousands - I have found it very helpful. People who have the other difficulties listed find literacy made more difficult by the traps. They should at least know what they are, and what is not. Experiment!

Val Yule

[LD 5807] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD #3

Mary Kelly

Mon Sep 20 14:41:27 EDT 2010

Robin: I can think of a good reason for testing and identifying learning problems in second language learners: access to services and accommodations. At my center, we have tested people who were unable to pass their citizenship exams, despite working very hard to prepare. With proper documentation, the test can be waived or given orally. In New York State, individuals with learning disabilities can access vocational services that are not available to the general population.  The Bronx, where I work, is truly international. People from all over the world live here. I have worked with people from Poland, Russia, Israel, Italy, France, Gambia, Botswana, Nigeria, and all over Latin America, South America and the Caribbean (a not exhaustive list). Quite a few were diagnosed with reading problems in their native countries. But those who weren't often describe problems in learning to read their native language. If someone comes to us for testing, but they have never been educated, we ask them to try an ESL or literacy program for a year. If they still haven't made progress, we will try to work with them.

Mary S. Kelly, PhD

Director, Fisher Landau Center for the Treatment of Learning Disabilities

Albert Einstein College of Medicine

[LD 5851] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD #3

Mary Kelly

Wed Sep 22 08:56:29 EDT 2010

I don't think that I said that we evaluate people and "label" them with learning disabilities "just to get them through a test." We try to help people understand why, even with hard work and good teachers, they continue to have difficulty in learning to read.

I am not scared or upset by a diagnosis of learning disability, and neither are the people we work with. It is not shameful to have a learning disability. It is painful.

The most important part of our evaluations is taking the history (as you point out is important). Many people we see come from families where no one got a very good education, but everyone else in the family learned to read. Jut as one example, why is the man I am seeing stuck in making progress while his sister learned English and became a nurse?

The diagnosis of a learning disability is not made to judge or to label people. It is made to get them the support and accommodations they need to play on a level playing field. I will agree that asking people to try a year in an adult education or ESL program is a bit arbitrary. How long would you see them fail before trying to intervene?

Mary S. Kelly, PhD. Director

Fisher Landau Center for the Treatment of Learning Disabilities

Albert Einstein College of Medicine

[LD 5859] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD #3

Robin Schwarz

Wed Sep 22 11:01:39 EDT 2010

Mary-- I recognize your pique at my remarks, and to answer your last question, I don't even let them start to fail before intervening. I do my very best to come in right where the learner is and as soon as something doesn't work I try something else.

Like it or not, having the LD label IS a problem for many, though the diagnosis CAN of course be a relief to some who have wondered. I have offered a number of other reasons why a person may not be reading well, even in a family of readers. You do not mention hearing or vision screenings, which I feel are essential for adults, whether ESL or otherwise before ANYTHING is undertaken in the way of instruction, especially if you already know the person has not had much success.

What is clear is that you care very much about those who struggle, as do I, though I have moved to a different view of how to help them after many long years in the field of LD working with adults and children.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5861] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD #3

Lucille Cuttler

Wed Sep 22 11:27:09 EDT 2010

Mary, your letter has the right words in the right order - (Jonathan Swift). Thank you. I can only quote a granddaughter who at age 8 said, "I have a problem, but they're going to fix it." - this after a lengthy diagnosis at Lenox Hill Hospital.


[LD 5818] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD #3

Robin Schwarz

Mon Sep 20 20:24:34 EDT 2010

Well Mary, I guess I should be glad you are helping these people pass their citizenship classes by labeling them with a reading problem. I thought about just such a response as yours yesterday, knowing someone would ask about accommodations. As you can tell, I am not a big fan of labeling non-Americans (meaning those who were not brought up in our education system with our view of learning disabilities) with reading problems just to get them through a test.

As I have noted, having a reading problem in one's first language does not automatically mean there will be a reading problem in the new language, though that can happen. Those who were already diagnosed in their home country obviously will not be uncomfortable with the diagnosis, but I have worked with dozens of students who were struggling, and even if I felt it was probably a learning disability, they were very reluctant to be so described and labeled.

Also, I know from experience as well that a great many people who appear to have dyslexia actually have vision problems that get in the way. It is very easy to tell the difference. If the person can decode individual words comfortably, but reads poorly in text, it is not dyslexia.

I would be interested in knowing how you diagnose someone who is a non-native speaker of English and who is unfamiliar with our cultural ways of testing? What diagnosis do you arrive at for someone who is not making progress in his or her literacy class after only one year??

I would like to see our testing authorities give extra time for those who are reading in a second or other language; that is for sure.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5768] Discussion on ESL and LD #4

Robin Schwarz

Thu Sep 16 01:47:34 EDT 2010

Complexities of the adult ELL that impact the learning process

Earlier I noted that the adult ELL is an entirely different case from an adult native English speaking, American-born adult who struggles to learn. Here are some factors that can make learning difficult for adult ESL learners:

Cultural differences

  • about what the roles and behaviors of teachers and learners are
  • about how learning is achieved or what “study” means
  • in understanding of many concepts that affect reading comprehension

This means for example, that a learner may be confused, even angry, that her teacher is not teaching the way she expects a teacher to. Rather than seeing it as her fault that she is not learning, she will see it as her teacher’s fault for not teaching the right way.

Issues of adult language acquisition

  • how the adult brain perceives speech sounds
  • the rate at which language is learned
  • the effect of age on learning as an adult

An adult learns language far differently, with much more effort and MUCH more slowly than children do. It is normal for adults to have difficulty hearing sounds correctly or saying new sounds correctly.

Prior education—

  • the extent or level of education,
  • the nature of prior education (was it rote learning?)

The lower the education level of a learner, the more he or she has to learn ABOUT learning and about the world in general. It is easy to underestimate the effect of low or no-literacy on learning for an adult.

The nature of the student’s first language

  • the orthographic script, grammar and syntax, phonological structure, morphology and so on
  • how discourse is organized and use (also a cultural issue)

Second language research has indicated for years that once the brain has absorbed a certain way of doing things, it will be hard to do them differently in a new language. For example, if a student’s first language does not have articles, learning to use articles is very challenging, and for the older learner may be nearly impossible.

Health issues

  • physical functions of vision and hearing,
  • visual stress
  • mental health issues
  • illness and medications for chronic conditions

In large school for adult immigrants where I was working recently, learners are regularly screened for hearing and vision difficulties. Fully 10% of learners had some kind of visual difficulty that impacted reading. Among the older population, hearing loss was often undetected, and significant health problems were common. All of these factors had a noticeable impact on the students’ ability to attend regularly, pay attention in class, and profit from instruction every day.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5770] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD #4

Beth Ellie

Fri Sep 17 16:08:34 EDT 2010

The impact of prior learning has been one of my considerations when teaching. I have a Gambian student who never attended school. He appears to come from a place with a strong oral tradition. His English speaking and listening skills are very strong, probably because everything he learned was by listening. He had great phonemic awareness. However, he struggled greatly with reading and writing since he had never learned either skill. He had to learn skills like holding a pencil and turning pages in a book. Because he was highly intelligent, he caught on to these skills quickly. Yet, the reading and writing is very, very labored. He can hear the sounds, but it is harder for him to decode them on paper. I am going to suggest he do a vision test just to rule that out. I have been concerned he may have a reading disability, but when I've looked at the lists you've provided he does not really fit any of those categories. Since he is 40, could it just be that reading and writing will always require a great deal of work for him due to the age he is learning English and learning to read and write?

Love all the discussion. Thank you.

Beth Ellie

Northcentral Technical College

[LD 5780] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD #4

Robin Schwarz

Fri Sep 17 22:26:32 EDT 2010

Beth-- how wonderful this man is learning to read!!! As you have noted from earlier entries, the brain's plasticity decreases with age, meaning that EVERYTHING is processed less efficiently and requires significantly more time and practice to master. It sounds to me as if he is right on track. We have no realistic norms for how long it should take an adult to learn to read for the first time. This man at least has the advantage of knowing English pretty well (The Gambia uses English as its primary official language along with many indigenous languages).

I do agree that a vision test should be done-- try to assure that it is done by someone who has SOME idea of what non-literacy is like and does not ask this man to read passages as part of his test. He should be tested primarily with pictures and letters.

Also, it would be a good idea to see if colored overlays would make reading more comfortable for him. I am pretty sure there is someone near you--either at the college or at the library in Wausau--who has a set of overlays that I donated.

But, coming back to this man's reading ~ Yes, he does come from a strong oral tradition (I know something about the Gambia and Senegal), and it is wonderful that he has good phonemic awareness. Since he has never learned to read, you can beef up his skills that he has so far with good, phonics based-program texts for adults like him. The two series that I know of that are excellent are Sam and Pat,(Hartel, Lowry & Hendon)Pub by Thomson Heinle) and Talk of the Block, (Haffner) pub. by New Readers Press. These are terrific because they are organized by a phonics principle AND a basal principle-- that is, words have mostly one vowel per lesson and sight words and important words are used over and over. They come with support exercises I believe. If anyone on the list is using them, please chime in. The stories are about adults and adult life, too.

I also highly recommend an old book called English Sounds and Spelling (McLelland, Hale & Beaudikofer). I especially like the pictures used for phonics in this (it is available on Amazon used-- it is out of print. The sentences will be too hard for this man initially, but much else of it is good-- very systematic and helpful for doing English phonics with English language learners. Most phonics systems developed for English speaking adult or child readers have too much vocabulary or use rare words to create the patterns etc. It is because those books above are written with adult ELLs with no prior literacy in mind that they are especially good. Though this man speaks English, a simple approach to phonics will be helpful.

And give this man TIME-- he is doing WELL, it sounds to me. This is a HUGE job for his brain. I have already mentioned the value of games and hands on activities. It is helpful for a learner like this not to be working in books or from papers all the time. Much of the teaching and practice can be accomplished in games and activities. These can be used to practice and practice and practice. From my background in remedial reading, I know that it is essential that the basic skills of reading be OVER learned in order for the reader to be fluent. So don't worry about his being bored-- he needs the practice--and you can make it more interesting through games and activities.

Another aspect of reading fluency often overlooked in teaching new readers is visual fluency--the ability to react quickly to word patterns. Use flash cards to practice short a words (that he knows or needs--see the books above) or any other easy pattern Have him search for and circle words in lines that have the same beginning or final letter, or double letters etc. The decoding MUST be fast and accurate for a reader to get meaning from text, and visual practice is essential. Again, that is what activities can help with--just presenting reading of the same words over and over in different contexts.

I hope this is helpful!! Thanks for writing to me!

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5806] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD #4-Talk of the Block

Jo Ann Fishburn

Sun Sep 19 21:39:51 EDT 2010


I want to second your recommendation of the Talk of the Block series. I have just started teaching adult nonreaders after a career in middle school and with young adults. In just a few weeks using ABeCeDarian for decoding instruction, my students have been able to begin reading the Talk of the Block books, and they LOVE them. About half of my students are from other countries, but they all speak English, so these are not ESL students. I love the series because much of it is decode-able, it concerns adult characters, and has to do with their real lives. I am very eager to check out Sam and Pat. Thanks for the suggestion.

Jo Ann Fishburn

[LD 5817] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD #4-Talk of the Block

Robin Schwarz

Mon Sep 20 19:38:15 EDT 2010

Jo Ann-- I am HAPPY you are using Talk of The Block. It is wonderful. I am curious, though, why you say your students are NOT ESL students. The degree to which they speak English is not what defines ESL. Even a perfectly fluent English speaker whose FIRST language is something else is an ESL student! You mean, perhaps, that they are not BEGINNING ESL students orally.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5774] Discussion on ESL and LD #4 part 2

Robin Schwarz

Thu Sep 16 01:48:19 EDT 2010

Coming back to the misalignment model or Social Model of LD, we can see that if some of these factors are significantly impacting the ESL student in the learning situation, learning and progress will be impaired. For example, if the ESL student has learned to read in a non-Roman script, then he or she will require much more practice to read English effectively and fluently than a student who is literate in a language written with the Roman alphabet, and in the meantime may read very slowly and make a number of decoding errors, appearing, then, to have reading difficulties. The problem impeding learning is not a diagnosable impairment, but rather a difference between the current skills of the student and the demands of reading made upon him or her at a given time. Several of these factors will be discussed in detail tomorrow.

My work with adult ESOL learners, their teachers and their programs have proven that these are NOT insignificant factors. One cannot say, “Oh, all ESOL learners struggle with these, so they cannot be that serious.” Every individual is impacted by some of these factors in different ways, and for some, these factors do get in the way of learning to the degree that we might think there was LD at play instead.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5776] Discussion on ESL and LD #5

Robin Schwarz

Thu Sep 16 01:50:17 EDT 2010

How do these complexities of adult ESOL learners affect the identification process?

We can see from the complexities mentioned earlier that it might be easy to think that an ELL has problems caused by LD. The problems of an adult language learner and an adult with LD often resemble each other a great deal. Thus the first problem that the complexities cause in the identification process is that they mislead teachers into thinking LD is an issue and a referral is necessary.

Then complexities that affect the learning of the adult ESOL learners also impact the diagnostic process because of the cultural and linguistic demands the diagnostic process makes on the person being evaluated. For example, let’s go back to that person learning to read English who is literate in a different script (e.g. Hangul, [the script of Korean] or Amharic, Hebrew, Hindi etc.). This reader’s brain must learn a whole new way of processing written symbols and, as I mentioned, this fact will naturally make the reading process slower.

Script is not the only influence on reading, either. Other languages have different word order, different grammar, and different ways of saying ideas. All this must be processed in the brain and then converted to the English way of doing it. Thus reading will be quite a challenge for a while, often slow and deliberate. If such a person was tested in the usual way for LD, there is a lot of reading and processing of English words and Roman script. This person would necessarily process this visual information more slowly and in different ways than an English speaker would. Therefore, we would not know what the reading score was actually measuring.

Similarly, if the person has a different cultural interpretation of items on the tests used for diagnosis, he or she could answer those items wrongly according to the test authors, and a low score might result.

And even if the student reads a Roman script language and has few or no cultural interferences with items, as a learner of English, he or she would not be proficient in the complex and abstract language usually used on tests. All of these factors have been found in studies to influence the outcomes of non-native speakers of English on achievement tests and other reading-based tests used both to determine if a referral is necessary and to ascertain if there might be LD in the picture. When these factors influence outcomes, then the test is no longer valid for that learner or class of learners.

We will have more discussion of more factors that impact learning and the complexities of diagnosis of ESL students in upcoming days.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5781] Behaviors

Joni Wallace

Fri Sep 17 23:41:53 EDT 2010


Earlier in the day, you asked to add to the list of behaviors that lead us think the ELL student has an LD. I have a young student from Honduras who is a lower level English speaker. He is willing to have oral conversation and even attempt to read but does not write down anything. Although I do not require students to write often, as the class just began, I thought it was interesting he does not write. Several other students write down the key vocabulary terms I put on the board. As you were saying earlier, could this be due to struggles in his NL and or his culture/previous amount of education? If so, what are some ways I can bridge this gap if that is the case?

Thank you for your thoughtful response before. This is proving to be very informational for me.

Thank you,

Joni Wallace

[LD 5784] Re: Behaviors

Robin Schwarz

Sat Sep 18 12:59:51 EDT 2010

Joni-- I would guess this young man is not actually literate in Spanish. You say he "attempts" to read-- but that could be just his wanting to be part of the group and doing what the class is doing. I suggest you screen him thoroughly in Spanish to find out just what his actual literacy skills are. If he barely writes at all, then you know he is illiterate. Screening amounts only to first asking him if he can read and write in Spanish, and if he says yes, then have him read something in Spanish and write a couple of sentences about himself. If he hesitates or labors over the reading and/or writing, you will know he has limited education. However, if he reports having gone to school for more than a year in a school in Honduras, but does not read or write at ALL, then he may indeed have a "real" learning disability. If he reads Spanish but does not spell well, he may have some real learning problem, as Spanish is an easy language to spell (because it has a highly predictable sound-symbol relationship in its orthography).

If he does not know how to write even in Spanish, I suggest you start by finding a good beginning handwriting book-- some of the newer ESL books for the low literate have SOME handwriting exercises at the beginning, but they are never enough-- and have him practice letters one at a time. A system I like is called American Handwriting Slow and Easy by Janette Haynes. It is out of pint but available on Amazon, I hope. I like this system because it was developed for adult English language learners coming from Arabic and has a modified cursive system.

Cursive is MUCH easier for beginning writers to learn, by the way, because less motor energy and control is needed. The writing instrument stays on the page instead of being lifted off for each part of the letter. Typically, cursive writing books start with letters all of one type or including the same shape. The book I just referred to also has wonderful practice of writing with REAL items ELLs need, such as names of days of the week, months, numbers, terms for streets (i.e. parts of addresses) and items for completing checks. Students like this practice very much.

As I have mentioned earlier to Beth, like all other skills, motor skills require time and LOTS of practice, so provide this student with writing practice every day and for homework, making sure he has paper with wide lines (primary paper) to start with and a marker or other instrument that is not "slippery" on the paper-- ball point pens are slippery-- gel pens are not, nor are pencils. He may enjoy using fat crayons or pens and definitely will profit from using a pencil grip. Many nice new pens are now fatter at the stem and have a rubber grip built right in. These are great for beginning students.

Another great way to give a beginning writer practice is to have them do very large 'writing"-- that is, the letter shapes he or she is working on, on newspaper or on a chalkboard (if you are lucky enough to have one....). I find it is harder for students to control their arms when doing large writing on a whiteboard. You can also use newsprint like is used in elementary classrooms for writing practice. And I do mean practice-- dozens and dozens of times copying and copying. No only is it very difficult to write words out of one's head or from dictation if one has not mastered the motor skills involved in making letters, but the hand and fingers get very tired until they have developed strength for writing. Like all basic skills, these must be automatic, too.

One more thing-- it is POSSIBLE that this young man has some physical reason that prevents him from writing-- he may have injured his hand or has some nerve damage or something. You will likely find this out when you screen him individually in Spanish.

And remember, if he is really not literate in Spanish, then he needs to start phonics at the very beginning, a process described to Beth on Friday. He cannot be expected to keep up with or catch up with the other literate adults in his class either. He CAN do the listening speaking activities, especially things that are of interest to him.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5783] Re: Behaviors

Robben Wainer

Sat Sep 18 12:12:03 EDT 2010

Dear Mrs. Wallace,

The first step in note taking is usually a student’s first act of agreement, in a very general sense this covers a broad range of prior experience, and use of learning skills. In Spanish "la notaciones estas considerata la pontificaciones que la professore raggiungere nella studente d'accorda para unas specificas y generales dellos avante con que sus comprenden hacia qualche regions que es sujettas." A student must do the work, his or her notetake must coincide with their process of learning to do so, careful and educational note taking is a skill that will be the motivating factor in all of their continuing studies from the beginning throughout a student's life.

We can continue to correspond about the issues and reasons for this. They are built in a fundamental assertion process of cognition. That written material and reading material is provided for its own meaning will not help a student direct his thoughts in learning from them, until they have at least understood the concept of how a statement of agreement allows the process of their development to improve.

Thank you for the letter,

Robben Wainer

[LD 5778] Day 2 of Guest Discussion with Robin Lovrien Schwarz

Rochelle Kenyon

Sat Sep 18 09:56:56 EDT 2010

Good Morning to Day 2,

We got off to a great start yesterday with the discussion on Adult ESOL Learners who Struggle: Is it REALLY Learning Disabilities? Thank you to Iris, Brant, Raquel, Mary, Beth, Richard, and Val for your interesting comments and questions. I will post Robin's first message for today ... next~

Rochelle Kenyon

[LD 5782] Posting for day 2 # 1

Robin Schwarz

Sat Sep 18 00:10:18 EDT 2010

Hi all—yesterday we got off to a VERY interesting start—questions about the most puzzling students, for sure!! I covered a few things about why adult ELLs struggle in those first-day postings. Today I will cover a few more.

As we have seen in the discussion from Friday (yesterday), education level is a significant factor in a student’s ability to profit from classroom instruction. Many, many students are suspected of having LD when in fact, instruction is far over their heads because they have no educational foundation. Our field has not had a lot of information at hand about the non-literate students in adult ESOL, but wonderful research and writing has been done about them for many decades.

It should not be surprising that these students ARE starting at zero when it comes to formal learning. Research from all over the globe on non-literate learners confirms that literacy is, as one researcher puts it, “a revolution in the brain.” He says that because as the brain learns literacy, it acquires a systematic way of processing all information. Every mode of processing is affected: For example, non-literate learners do not scan visual fields systematically—which makes sense, right? When a reader of English looks at any page, he or she first looks at the upper left hand corner and tends to scan top to bottom. Not so the non-literate adult, whose eyes are not attracted to any particular part of a page. Thus, our non-literate learners are visually lost on book and worksheet pages. I worked recently with an Ethiopian lady who had been reading in school for only about three years and had no prior literacy before beginning in her English school. She was still very confused by the visual organization of textbook pages and did not notice or use critical information such as words in word boxes or other clues as to how to use pages. The phonological skills of non-literate adults have been found to be almost the same as those of young pre-readers, and again, this makes sense. Awareness of the concept that there are sounds “inside” a word is primarily learned as one learns to write and spell.

There is a great deal to say about the non-literate, but for now, suffice it to say that instruction must start at the VERY beginning, with beginning motor skills needed for writing (holding a pencil, as Bernie noted about the Gambian student yesterday), visual discrimination (being able to visually discriminate between shapes, sizes of written things—especially letters or numbers—understanding the concept of perspective in pictures etc.), and phonological skills—-learning to pay attention to and then to identify initial sounds, and gradually, final sounds, and so on. These students must also gradually learn such school skills as turning pages, where to find and how to read page numbers, how to fill in blanks (how to track from left to right comes before the blanks!!) and all—ALL—the skills that we take so for granted that students have. It is NOT a good idea to start right off with the alphabet or phonics because these students often do not have enough language to be able to apply that knowledge to words. That is why it is recommended from research that, as I mentioned to Bernie yesterday, teaching the non-literate begin with a lot of receptive language and then whole words—words that are extremely meaningful and relevant.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5788] Re: Day 2 of Guest Discussion with Robin Lovrien Schwarz

Lynn Boza

Sat Sep 18 17:50:18 EDT 2010

Thank Robin for engaging in this discussion. Although I have nothing to add at present, I am interested in what's been said!

Lynn Boza

[LD 5785] Discussion on ESL and LD Day 2 posting 3 2

Robin Schwarz

Sat Sep 18 00:15:08 EDT 2010

Continuing my remarks about education level and how it can contribute to a student's not doing well in class:

Education is an issue for students at all levels. I remember a couple of program coordinators from Vancouver who showed up in a workshop I was giving in Hawaii. They said a big problem in their program was that the highly educated students were dropping out because the teaching was pegged for very uneducated students.

And for those with just minimal education or interrupted education, functioning in a classroom can be very challenging: following what is going on and changing activities or following directions, listening while looking at a book etc.. Bear in mind that someone with limited education very likely has equally limited world knowledge—as so some with more education. I am teaching community college ESL this semester and have a classroom full of students who have never heard of Tahiti (it came up in a text we are reading). I remember interviewing a young man from El Salvador who had only had 5 years of education because his parents could not afford uniforms and books for more schooling. He was not doing well in his ESL class. It was clear he was very smart, and much of the class was way too simple for him, but he either paid no attention, fidgeted a lot or left during reading lessons. I asked what that was about and he said it was too hard to understand things about which he had never learned—such as volcanoes in Hawaii. He didn’t really know what a volcano was, or what Hawaii was either!! ESL textbooks tend to have random topics and for educated learners this is interesting, but for those who are learning everything at once, it is off putting to be lost in the content as well as the language. That is one of a dozen reasons why it is essential that lessons be as relevant as possible for adult ELLs. Relevance must be judged from the STUDENT’s point of view, not the teachers.

When doing intake, particularly in adult ESOL, try to avoid questions such as “How many years of education have you completed?” Many learners have had significantly interrupted learning and cannot even estimate how much education they have had; others may inflate the answer a bit to not seem uneducated. Also, in many other countries, school is in session from 7 or 8 a.m. to noon, and for fewer months than in the US. This means their years of education are not at all equivalent to ours.

And don't forget that we are talking about adults. For many, school happened a LONG time ago and they may be nervous about forgotten skills, or simply lost ground in skills they once had. Sandra Fradd, who has advised the field of ESL for many years, always encourages teachers and schools to find out WHAT their students really know through a variety of informal assessments and then teach from that. Don’t assume students know things or have skills until you find out for sure.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5787] Discussion on ESL and LD day 2 posting 3

Robin Schwarz

Sat Sep 18 00:16:50 EDT 2010

The NATURE of the education that students have had also can impact their learning significantly. This falls into the category of cultural differences as well, so I will address cultural issues here.

A student from Burundi (in central Africa) once told her GED teacher in Texas, “You GED teachers are so stupid!! You do not even know what you want us to learn. You tell us to go home and read many pages and then we have a test on some part of it. In our country, a teacher tells us to learn a certain page, and then we go home and learn it, and we know what we will be tested on.”

The fact of coming from a system where memorizing is the way to learn material, memorizing affects students in several ways. First, students from such systems do not have the habit of analytical thinking. Thus, they are baffled by questions asking them to apply their learning, or by searching for answers that are not on the page. Also, they do not have the habit of expressing opinions about texts or other class work. Once I asked a class of university ESL students what happened in their countries when they gave opinions in class. They fell about laughing, saying that they would NEVER be asked for opinions. It was the teacher’s job to tell them what they needed to think. The implications of this are enormous when we think of all the ways and times we ask students to venture answers that are not in the book or to support their opinion or ideas in a paragraph or essay.

A common complaint about students in ESL/ESOL is that they do not do homework. However, students from education systems and learning situations in which learning means memorization have little or no experience with homework other than to memorize something. Therefore, if you do not use that magic word, they will not understand that what you want is OUR version of study—and won’t know how to do it. Like so many things in adult ESL, it often takes gradual direct instruction in what homework is and how to do it, and WHEN to do it, for students to absorb the idea. Many, MANY of my community college students (in two community colleges) have no idea how

Besides homework, students also have a very different idea about teaching and learning than the teacher does. In many cultures, students do not ask questions and speak only when spoken to. The teacher is the expert and the one who tells the students what to learn and when and how. Thus it is difficult to get ESL students to be active learners—a critical behavior for adult language learners!! They often think that coming to class is being a good learner, but for adults, class is a small part of what is needed to learn a language. Also students from such backgrounds are likely to be very confused, even angry, when asked to set learning goals. They presume that that is the teacher’s role, not theirs. Again, it takes a lot of incremental teaching and learning, guiding, modeling and proof of achievement for this behavior to take hold.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5786] Re: Handwriting

Sharon Hillestad

Sat Sep 18 15:54:38 EDT 2010

I found the comment that cursive is easier to learn than manuscript very interesting. When I started first grade in 1950 I was taught to write in cursive while I learned to read print. I did not learn manuscript until I was 19 years old. This was common in the 50s. I just never thought of it as being easier. Now days, neither manuscript nor cursive has been taught to a lot of the students that come to the Learning Center. It seems that the students are teaching themselves how to make the letters. We looked for a Florida state standard regarding handwriting and could not find one. That explained it, I guess.

Sharon Hillestad, Florida

[LD 5789] Re: Handwriting

Robin Schwarz

Sat Sep 18 18:52:08 EDT 2010

Sharon- that is very interesting about not finding a Florida state standard concerning handwriting. I am sure most other states lack such a standard, though I could be wrong. In any case, students need to write legibly, and cursive works very well. It also feels a little more grown up than copying manuscript letters for days on end...:))

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5790] Re: Handwriting

Val Yule

Sat Sep 18 19:54:22 EDT 2010

I learnt to write with copybooks, that you traced over. As I was extremely clumsy, they saved me. I could not just copy for a long time, after the copybooks had trained me. Are they still available now? The writing in them was small which suited me, because I had trouble writing large - as I think a lot of clumsy people do. My daughter learnt to write small and neat at one school. She moved to another which insisted on large writing - and she could not cope with it.

A second point. Writing on lines is essential for most clumsy learners. Yet some teachers refuse to let them on the ground that it will obstruct their imagination, (or worse, simply that it is school policy not to have lines). Learners who cannot write straight can become seriously discouraged at the mess they produce. Allow lined paper as guides (not as police). At one school, a boy referred to me showed that he could write neatly with guidelines, and was so proud of his work, but he was refused lined paper because ‘it was against school policy’. Yet research using blind studies has conclusively proven that lined paper does not hamper creative writing. (Burnhill P, Hartley J & Davies L, Lined paper, legibility and creativity. In J Hartley (ed.), The psychology of written communication, 1980, pp 82-91. London: Kogan Page).

Third. Ensure instruments are easy to use skillfully. This is especially important for small children, often allowed nothing but large crayons. Teach comfortable pen-holds and good posture.

Val Yule

[LD 5793] Re: handwriting

Robin Schwarz

Sun Sep 19 00:22:49 EDT 2010

Thanks Val---all these ideas suit adults well, too. As I noted, too, having a comfortable writing utensil is critical, and that might be a fat pen or crayon, which are available at office supply places and other places with school supplies.

Thanks for reminding us about lines. I forgot that piece. I am dismayed when I see teachers having students write on blank paper or on the board without lines. One teacher of learners with emerging literacy has taught her learners to draw the lines on the whiteboard before they write words!! Lined flip pads are the same price as unlined ones--and VERY useful for adults learning to write!!

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5794] Re: Handwriting

Andrea Wilder

Sat Sep 18 20:44:28 EDT 2010

I believe that French children learn to write using graph paper. Learned? I wonder if anyone here uses graph paper with their students.


[LD 5799] Re: Behaviors

Joni Wallace

Sun Sep 19 22:32:07 EDT 2010


With your posting about CALP, I have a student in my class whom I see these characteristics. She is from Vietnam and although she has good conversational English, she is still not bridging the gap into the second tier in which you were referring. She is older and has been here for 18 years. For students such as these, what would be the best support for them? Would it be practicing directions, analyzing short stories, etc. Could this be because she did not develop CALP strongly before coming to the United States? This sparked my interest as this student would need help in moving from the first tier (BICS).

Thank you,

Joni Wallace

[LD 5812] Re: Behaviors

Robin Schwarz

Mon Sep 20 17:32:22 EDT 2010

Joni-- It is likely that this person did not develop CALP in Vietnamese (or French if she was educated in French) at a very high level and therefore cannot transfer it to English.

Helping her would depend on which kind of reading she needs to do or is interested in doing. In general, a very good way to build CALP is through thematic teaching--project based learning, for example. I found it very helpful with my college ESL students to require thematic reading. They chose a topic that would be in newspapers--for example, weather related disasters or natural disasters. Then they had to read about one event per week, but in three different sources- three newspapers, magazines or now, an online source. Then they wrote a very brief (1-3 sentences) summary of the event. You could also add that they need to list 5-10 words related to that disaster that they read in all three sources. I required copies of the sources when they handed in their summaries. This worked REALLY well--even the students admitted that they learned vocabulary around a topic this way. The key is exposure and use of the words. Writing about something using the words is also an excellent way to get students to hang onto to them better. They could read several articles about a topic or watch a movie, etc, then, use a corpus of words from that topic in writing something.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5791] Discussion on ESL and LD Day 2 posting 4-1

Robin Schwarz

Sun Sep 19 00:07:50 EDT 2010

The next part of this discussion today on what causes ELLs to look as if they have LD has to do with adult language acquisition. It is important to recognize that adults learn language differently than children do, largely because of the biology of language learning. That is, the brain, as I have mentioned before, decreases in its ability to process speech sounds and translate them into spoken language; also the habits of first language are very well cemented in an adult and difficult to overcome.

Just this morning I was working with my intermediate level community college ESL class, which is full of educated people who consider themselves awfully good in English. But, when they had to repeat sentences in a dictation drill we were doing, many left out articles and prepositions. This behavior is predicted by research from two different fields that indicates first that it is increasingly difficult for adults to adapt to usage of such words if their own language lacks them, and second, from the neuroscience studies of language acquisition that function words such as articles, prepositions and pronouns are stored differently in the brain than content words. We can understand, then, why an older speaker of a language that does not use function words the way English does tends to speak in strings of nouns. His or her brain simply doesn’t have the function words needed for English stored and learning them is a real task, requiring that the learner overcome a lifetime of other language habits.

Many disputes have arisen in the study of second language acquisition about the concept of a critical period—that is, a time after which language acquisition doesn’t happen. A great deal of research has proven that there is no specific cut off, but after the teen years, the decline in the ease with which language can be learned is sharp for most people. People who already speak two or more languages have some advantage in learning yet another, though it is not guarantee of a high level of success. Some adult learners can achieve near-native pronunciation, but most have an accent, that is sometimes, as we know, very strong.

Because of this decline, it is easy to think that an adult learner who cannot repeat almost anything and has a really hard time understanding spoken English has LD. Like all things in life, language acquisition for people falls on a wide spectrum, with some at the end where oral/aural skills are almost impossible, and others on the other end where they manage to gain some skill.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5792] Re: English sounds and the alphabet

Val Yule

Sat Sep 18 21:36:40 EDT 2010

Experience shows that Robin is right about the IPA not being suitable except for well-educated students. But the 26 letter alphabet is not enough to give all the 41 English sounds. The free cartoon website   gives ch! sh! th! ng! nk! as a chant at the end of the ABC song and gives nineteen vowel sounds in cartoon format that exaggerates them with cartoon figures

a eh i o uh

Ay Ee I Oh You

Ar Er Air Or/Aw

Ow Oy OO! ooh (puff)

and then shows the sounds in songs and text. Also at YouTube in short videos, see ozread or 

Unfortunately they are not in order.

Val Yule

[LD 5800] Re: English sounds and the alphabet

Robin Schwarz

Mon Sep 20 12:47:19 EDT 2010

This looks like a great resource as long as it does not confuse learners more. If some have learned sounds and spelling in other ways, it might be confusing to add on. However, I believe auditory and visual input can only be good for ESL learners!

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5796] Discussion on ESL and LD day 2 posting 4-2

Robin Schwarz

Sun Sep 19 00:11:34 EDT 2010

Continuing the discussion of adult language acquisition...

One researcher has characterized the difference between adults and child language learning this way: for children, language learning is effortLESS and UNconscious, while for adults language learning is effortFUL and conscious. This means we as teachers need to help adults be active language learners.

Help them compare how their language structures something and then how English does it. Help them HEAR the essential sounds of English through careful, systematic instruction in the sound system of English. Use minimal pair work if you can, and help students figure out a handle on pronunciation by grouping words into ‘word families”—this is classic reading tutoring. I ask students to make a dictionary in which they enter words with different spelling patterns (i.e. words with ight, or words with oa.).

I often have use another, especially the lower literate ones, in which they enter different ways to spell one sound—all the ways we spell long A for example. We learn and enter them gradually and they sort the words into the correct group. Lots of activities can be structured around this goal. The idea is to give them a more predictable handle on English.

There are too many schools of teaching English for me to go into any detail, but the general idea is COMPREHENSIBLE INPUT. This means both the sounds in words and the meaning of words. This is referred to as CI, and is increased when learners both know the words and are familiar with the topic. It is REALLY important to self-monitor when you talk to ELLs so you are sure to use short sentences, basic words and clear pronunciation. It is necessary often to slow WAY down, repeat very carefully and pronounce words by syllable very slowly. This allows the brain of the learner to begin to grasp the sounds and the way they are pronounced.

Monitor material too. Is the topic well known to students? Is it of the highest interest possible to them right now in their lives? Is the reading too challenging? Are sentences too long or grammar above what the learner can manage?

Students in ESOL often struggle because too much is presented too fast (a complaint of average to poor foreign language learners, too). If you find students are not keeping up, pare down lessons, do a LOT of review and provide lots of ways for students to absorb, use and master vocabulary.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5797] Discussion on ESL and LD Day 2 posting 5

Robin Schwarz

Sun Sep 19 00:15:54 EDT 2010

The final topic for today--Saturday-- is CALP or cognitive academic language proficiency. This term comes from Jim Cummins, who recognized in the early 1980’s that language acquisition is complex and at least two-tiered. One tier is conversational language needed for survival and is developed by the average language learner quite quickly—for young children in just a few weeks or months; for adults up to about three years or longer depending on age, need for English and opportunity to use English. Cummins termed this type of language BICS, or basic interpersonal communication skills. BICS develop quickly because it is language learned in context, often with a lot of gesturing and other body language and because of necessity. A person working in a window factory will develop somewhat different BICS from someone working in a pharmacy or working in a nursing home.

The second tier, CALP, is the language needed to understand the more abstract and uncontextualized language of textbooks, tests, directions on forms, manuals and other types of reading that require background knowledge and often a high-level knowledge of grammar. According to studies mostly done on children up through high school, CALP develops slowly and it may take anywhere from five to ten YEARS for an ELL to develop CALP to a level that permits him or her to comprehend and perform in a class or on tests at the level of an average native English speaker. I like to characterize this kind of language as being NOT the language one uses at the bus stop or in line at the grocery store.

Alba Ortiz and others maintain that normally low developed CALP is the most common reason for ELLs of any age to be suspected of having reading difficulties or disabilities (RD). This is because the students speak English very well; many have already exited ESL support or classes if they are in K-12 settings. But, their CALP lags way behind—--normally—and they falter on testing written for native English speakers.

A few years ago, I was invited to work with a number of schools in a school district in an eastern state. I was presented with many cases of students suspected of having LD, but a closer look at the cases indicated that in all but one, the problem was normally low CALP. This means that the learners were recently arrived and had not had time to develop CALP for their grade level or arrived at an older age and were already considerably slower in acquiring language than much younger children. A part of this picture was the fact that another challenge about CALP in a school setting is that CALP demands increase with grade level, so it is a moving target for the ESL students.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5809] Discussion on ESL and LD Day three posting 1-1

Robin Schwarz

Sun Sep 19 14:23:55 EDT 2010

Hi all—I hope you are not getting information overload!! The topic for today, day three, is the controversy over using current methods of evaluation and testing to attempt to identify LD in adult ELLs and problems with the referral system. After scouring the literature about testing adult ELLs, or any ELLs for LD for my chapter in “Learning to Achieve,” I divided the issues into two large groups: issues that the learners bring to the testing situation that can negatively impact their outcomes on testing or make them look as if they have LD and get referred for testing, and problems with the testing tools and the process. I’ll begin with the first group of issues, which we have been examining already in the first two days.

While most of my remarks on issues that impact adult learners may apply to younger ELLs, I am concerned primarily here with the adult population. The complications that arise in evaluation and testing stem largely from the fact that an adult is fully embedded in his or her culture, and, if literate, is a fully formed reader in another orthography and system of presenting information in print. Issues of culture, proficiency in the first language, amount and nature of prior education and CALP acquisition are among issues that impact testing of young ELLs (and of course, adult ELLs). Some very good research has shown that very young ELLs who start school in Kindergarten or first grade and are educated similarly to English speaking children can be fairly reliably tested, at least for reading disabilities, by testing core phonological skills and avoiding the issues listed above, though it is not a perfect route (See Wagner, Francis & Morris, 2005, “Identifying English Language Learners with Learning Disabilities: Key Challenges and Possible Approaches.” Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 20 (1), which discusses some of the issues related to young ELLs). For adults, however, all routes to testing are flawed.

One prominent issue in testing that has already been discussed is CALP, or the level of language proficiency needed to manage text written for native English speakers. CALP involves not only vocabulary, but also knowledge of advanced grammar and of abstract language. An illustration of the language challenges that the notion of CALP includes is the difference between, for example, a sign that says “Premises close at 5:30 PM. Items left for cleaning may be picked up after 8:00 AM the following day,” and one that says. “The store closes at 5 PM. You can pick up your clothes tomorrow after 8 AM.” The latter sentences are in the active voice and are clearly directed at the reader, where the first two are impersonal, and have passive voice and abstract or formal language (premises, items). Besides signs, which are usually puzzlingly written in formal, impersonal language, test items, directions on almost anything and text books are usually written in this impersonal language and use passive voice or other complex, indirect language, which requires deep experience with the language to understand.

As noted in yesterday’s discussion, the CALP issue is prevalent in the mistaken diagnosis of RD in ELLs. The lag in vocabulary and knowledge of abstract, and/or grammatically complex language has been noted in studies on learners of all ages. Leon Abedi and colleagues did studies where they simplified the language (just as I simplified the language on the sign above—both vocabulary and grammar were simplified) on large-scale achievement tests for students in middle and high school and showed that ELLs performed statistically as well as non-English speaking students under these conditions, whereas when tested with the original, more formal format, ELLs as a group fell significantly below native-English speakers on these tests.

Those of you who have studied testing and measurement know that if a test tests something it was not intended to test, it is not valid. Thus the validity of tests intended to measure content knowledge is compromised if the language on the test prevents ELLs from showing their knowledge.

The issue here, then, is that performance on achievement tests and high-stakes testing is what is often used to determine that an ELL is not performing well and may have LD. Furthermore, achievement tests, which measure content knowledge, are part of the LD testing paradigm since traditionally, it has been the gap between potential to learn (IQ) and actual learning (achievement) that has been one of the primary determiners of a designation of LD. It is not hard to see the problem if an ELL performs poorly on achievement tests because of a normal lag in all aspects of CALP, it is inaccurate to conclude that he or she has a reading disability.

Robin Lovrien

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