Is it ESL, Special Needs or ESL with Special Educational Needs?

A critical review of the literature focusing on second language acquisition disorders for students with special educational needs

Essay, 2016

24 Pages



Is it ESL, Special Needs or ESL with Special Educational Needs?

A critical review of the literature focusing on second language acquisition disorders for students with special educational needs.

Recent studies have suggested that the limited research literature that is devoted to second language acquisition disorders for students with special educational needs can be categorized into two clear polarizing views, being firstly; clinical representation of the disorders and secondly classroom interventional strategies and curriculum adaption. Neither camp seeks to acknowledge the importance of the role the other plays. This is an extremely unfortunate situation as the theoretical literature, the most common place educators and parents seek out assistance to help the learner, is a gallimaufry of ideas, for the most part, which do not draw upon clinical research data as it is more often than not presented and worded in a way that makes it inaccessible to those without a deep knowledge of linguistics or medical terminology. Future research in this area would benefit from a more ‘user friendly’ cross-discipline approach.

I ask again and again. I don’t repeat my question because I didn’t understand-in fact, even as I’m asking, I know I do understand.

The reason why? Because I very quickly forget what it is I’ve just heard. Inside my head there really isn’t such a big difference between what I was told just now, and what I heard a long, long time ago.

So I do understand things, but my way of remembering them works differently from everyone else’s.

Naoki Higashida,

The Reason I Jump, the inner voice of a thirteen-year-old boy with autism.

Naoki Higashida is only one person who constitutes the fifteen percent of the global population the World Health Organization and the World Bank identified in its 2011 joint report as having a disability.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 1995) has identified three distinctive groups of special educational needs students being:

- students with disability (including sensory and motor impairments as well as mental disorders
- students with difficulties (representing the group of students with learning disabilities) and
- those with disadvantages ( meaning primarily social and economic disadvantages)

To date very little research has been undertaken which examines the literature surrounding the difficulties a mainstream classroom teacher faces in identifying second language acquisition disorders within special need students. In a climate of inclusive education there are some students whose language acquisition challenges appear to be neither ESL nor special needs. They fit in the middle ground, which adheres to the concept of unexpectedness. As one of the seminal authors in this field Oritz ,( 2001) states, “ The overrepresentation of English language learners in special education classes suggests that educators have difficulty distinguishing students who truly have learning disabilities from students who are failing for other reasons, such as limited English.”

Since Oritz’s publication in 2001 the world has experienced an unprecedented number of people globally having been displaced or having had to leave their home countries and migrate by legal or illegal means. In fact the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, 2015) has placed the number at 65.3 million people in 2015. Over half of this shocking statistic is under the age of 18.

The above statistics and figures place extreme pressure on global education systems to honor the United Nations 1994 Salamanca Statement’s Framework for Action which calls for ‘ordinary schools to accommodate all children, regardless of their physical, intellectual, social, emotional, linguistic or other conditions’ (UNESCO, 1994) A critical examination of both the research and theoretical literature of second language acquisition disorders for students with special educational needs is required. Research indicates that both financial and societal marginalization occurs when second language acquisition disorders are not identified early enough for effective interventional strategies to be implemented affecting multiple generations.

Thomas in his 2006 Paris conference paper suggests that, “Developmental disorders defined on the basis of behavioral deficits, such as dyslexia, Specific Language Impairment and autism leans towards behavioral genetics but the casual genes are not yet known.” The medical profession argue that, “The deficits are restricted to single cognitive domains but there remains doubts as to whether these disorders are indeed homogeneous rather than behavioral clusters with milder associated deficits and heterogeneous causes (Paradis, 2016). It is this type of language that confronts educators when they start exploring the research literature for answers to the unresolved questions to the language development issues their students are experiencing. It’s rather confronting for educators who read the clinical research literature to consider their students as having ‘deficits in social interactions’ and ‘deviant language characteristics’ (Agostini & Best, 2014).

As David Mitchell, the translator of The Reason I Jump puts it, “The scant silver lining is that medical theory is no longer blaming your wife for causing the autism by being a ‘Refrigerator Mother’ as it did not so long ago. Mitchell admits that the medical research, ‘may contain usable ideas but reading them can feel depressingly like being asked to j oin a political party or a church. ’ Academic research papers have been praised for being denser, cross referenced and richer in pedagogy and acknowledges that it is excellent that the field is being researched but in the words of Mitchell, himself a father of an autistic child , “Often the gap between theory and what’s unraveling on your kitchen floor is too wide to bridge.” This highlights the need for research and theoretical material being written in an, ‘accessible way’. That is, a way that focuses on helping educators and parents being supported by medical researchers and that the purpose of this research is to a certain degree about “realizing the potential of children with special needs and helping them become long-term net contributors to society (Mitchell, 2016).”

Is it ESL or Special Needs?

According to Nancy Cloud (1990), “ There is a paucity of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Language (TESOL) programs which provide crossover training in special education or special education programs that encourage specialization in TESOL.

Cloud also presents US with an increasingly common scenario where, mainstream teachers, inclusive educators, or special education practitioners place a phone call or email to an ESL specialist wanting to know quickly how to teach ESL or when the situation is reversed and an ESL teacher contacts a special education unit when they are challenged by a student having difficulties learning.

This is a scenario that as classroom populations are becoming increasingly diverse, including but not limited to first language speakers, English as Second Language learners and those with special educational needs. This diversity was first bought to the attention of the Commission for Racial Equality, when it was suggested it undertake an analysis of school records at a multi-ethnic secondary school in 1988 and explored, using qualitative interviews how black and white (sic) students were designated as either English as Second Language Learners or as Special Needs. The authors of this particular paper argued that “the process of designation and allocation of ESL students in particular, linked to the school’s rigid hierarchical system of grouping inhibited the progress of these particular students and denied them equality of educational opportunity.

However, the term used by medical theorists ‘ behavioural deficits’ to describe language acquisition disorders has been found by educational theorists (Cloud, 1990) to be alienating to parents and educators. Yet understanding the origin and underlying cause and nature of the disorder is paramount for educational practitioners to fathom so that the learning and lesson planning which occurs in the educational environment is informed and draws upon the current theories, which ultimately shape government policies and educational practices.

Students with disabilities

“By its very nature a learning disability cannot be attributed to social, cultural, economic or emotional factors (Learning Disability Ass of Onatario, n.d.).” It does in fact stem from the cognitive and linguistic processes of a student. It is the difficulties in these areas that define a reading disability.

The research literature that surrounds reading disability mainly focuses on two main fields of questioning and research. The first is the quandary of how to assess the cognitive and linguistic abilities of English as a Second Language learner in a way that is fair when considering the student’s first language and cultural heritage as to how to test the degree of the reading disability in an ESL student. The research that has emerged in this field is considered by some researchers to be controversial.

The other area researchers have focused upon is on the dilemma that reading disabilities present to the educator and how to teach the learner and the over­representation of ESL learners in special education classes. A study conducted by Bunch, Abram, Lotan, & Valdes, (2001) found that, “One of the most profound challenges that mainstream teachers face in meeting the needs of English learners is the lack of ongoing support for working with such diverse student populations.”

It is human nature to hope that simply asking how to solve a specific problem will result in a specific answer applicable to all students in all situations (Alberto & Troutman, 2013). Although students supplied with ‘cookbook methods’ may acquire competencies more quickly; the students who teachers, are required to spend more time on basic principles with tend to show more competence in the long run (White, 1977).

As reading disability can be considered a subtype of a learning disability. According to Limbos and Geva (2001), “ Discerning which ESL learners have a reading disability is a process that has been subject to heated criticism and controversy.”

When some researchers argue that mild disabilities are, “socially constructed and arbitrary” (Barnes, Mercer, & Shakespeare, 1999) because they do not have a clear


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Is it ESL, Special Needs or ESL with Special Educational Needs?
A critical review of the literature focusing on second language acquisition disorders for students with special educational needs
Charles Darwin University
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
special, needs, educational
Quote paper
Karen Dalton (Author), 2016, Is it ESL, Special Needs or ESL with Special Educational Needs?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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