Accessing the English Language: Limited English Proficient Students and Learning Disabilities

by Lee Anne Sulzberger, M.Ed.

One of the intents of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 is that "all limited English proficient students will become proficient in English and reach high academic standards, at a minimum attaining proficiency or better in reading/language arts and mathematics" ( ppt).

A limited English proficient student (LEP), as stipulated by the NCLB act, must be a student age 3 through 21 who is currently enrolled in, or preparing to enroll in, an elementary or secondary school. In order to be classified as LEP, students must come from an environment where English is not the dominant language. Thus, students whose native language is a language other than English may be classified as LEP, whether they are born inside or outside of the United States. LEP students may include migratory students whose native language is not English, and who come from an environment where English is not dominant, as well as students who are Native American, Alaska Native, or native residents of outlying areas. Students who come from environments where a language other than English has had a significant impact on their level of English language proficiency may also be classified as LEP if difficulties in speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language are significant.

A student in the groups considered for LEP may be classified as LEP only if the language difficulty denies the student the ability to meet state achievement standards, the ability to achieve successfully in classrooms where English is the primary language of instruction, or the opportunity to participate fully in society (http://www.pen.k12.

In order to serve students classified as LEP effectively, teachers and other professionals must first become aware of typical phenomena associated with second-language acquisition. According to Roseberry-McKibbin and Brice (2000), the following are typical processes related to second-language acquisition:

Interference or Transfer from the Native Language to English. For example, in Spanish the phrase "más guapa" literally means "More prettier." A Spanish-speaking student who says, "That girl is more prettier," therefore, is exhibiting the typical phenomenon of language transfer.

Silent Period. As students begin to learn a second language, they typically spend a great deal of time focusing on listening and aural comprehension, with little time dedicated to speaking. Very young children may remain in the silent period for up to a year; older children may remain in the silent period for several weeks or months.

Codeswitching. This practice occurs when second-language learners include elements of both languages in the same sentence or phrase. For example, the speaker might say, "I'm hungry. ¡Vamos a comer!" instead of, "I'm hungry. Let's eat!" Such switching back and forth between languages is exhibited by many fluent bilingual individuals as well.

Language Loss. In some instances as children learn English, they experience a loss of fluency and skills in their native language if the first language is not used as frequently.

Roseberry-McKibbin and Brice (2000) also note that many students may appear fluent in conversational English, but have difficulty in what is known as cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP). In other words, it usually takes longer to develop the complex language and vocabulary of academic courses than basic interpersonal communication skills. This, too, is a normal process in second-language acquisition.

However, for some LEP students, the challenges of second-language learning are compounded by the presence of a learning disability. It is important to note that LEP cannot be a reason for automatically denying an evaluation for special education, nor can it be the sole reason for referring a student for special education services.

In order to ensure that students with disabilities who are learning English have full access to the general curriculum, Fanta (2002) proposes that language and cultural needs be considered along with special learning needs. Specifically, she suggests that both general and special education teachers consider using the following selected strategies with English language learners (ELL) with disabilities in inclusive classrooms.

Reality-Based or Experiential Models. Teachers should use real-life settings to teach skills. For example, Fanta (2002) suggests teaching young language learners language skills related to manners and food during snack or lunchtime rather than in isolation during a language arts period. Students are then more likely to see the relevance of what is being learned.

Understandable Input. Teachers and other staff should use short sentences and phrases and allow the student time to process an initial question before asking for additional information.

Multimodal Approach. Teachers should use all learning modalities when presenting information. Frequent use of visual materials and cues (e.g., facial expressions, gestures) is very helpful to the LEP student with a learning disability. Fanta (2002) also suggests that teachers use drama and music as well as pictures, diagrams, objects, computer graphics, or visual organizers to enhance student learning for ELL.

Roseberry-McKibbin's Dynamic Dozen (as cited in Haley, 2000) are additional multimodal strategies that teachers may use in order to meet the needs of exceptional English language learners effectively. These strategies include the following.

  • The use of mnemonic devices
  • The use of visualization
  • Focusing on and writing down key words
  • The use of categorization or grouping to aid memory

(For specific vocabulary-building activities, please refer to Vocabulary Strategies for English Language Learners in this issue.)

Growing numbers of LEP students in local schools will require teachers to increase their repertoire of instructional strategies and expand their knowledge of the cultural and linguistic diversity of their students. Such knowledge and skill will be essential to ensure that students have access to the general education curriculum and the English language so that they may achieve the goals set forth by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.


Fanta, J. N. (2002). Accommodations and modifications for English language learners. In Serving English language learners with disabilities: A resource manual for illinois educators (Chap. 8) . Retrieved February 28, 2003, from

Haley, M. H. (2000). Culturally and linguistically diverse exceptional students: Refocusing the lens. Esl magazine online. Retrieved February 18, 2003, from

Roseberry-McKibbin, C., & Brice, A. (2000). Acquiring English as a second language: What's "normal," what's not [Electronic version]. The ASHA Leader, 5(12), 4-7.

Virginia Department of Education. (2002). No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Retrieved February 28, 2003, from

Virginia Department of Education. (2002). No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Retrieved February 23, 2003, from

Date: May/June 2003