Supporting the Struggling ELL Learner
Students with English as a second language can be reasonably expected to have special physical, learning and behavioural needs with at least the same frequency as other students.

As a district we are continuing to work on recognizing and responding to these needs. In Richmond it is not necessary for students to be formally assessed using standardized measures in order for them to access service. These students should be referred to the School Based Team (SBT) for discussion and decision-making regarding the best possible support the school team can offer. Informal assessment can provide teachers with information regarding students' skills in language, communication, memory and learning style. A variety of people on the SBT have knowledge and experience which they can contribute to discussions regarding assessment and support for these students. In particular, Speech and Language Pathologists, school Resource Teachers, some members of the Learning Services Department, and the Richmond Mental Health Team may need to be involved.

When students are experiencing difficulty acquiring English it is important to remember and consider all the factors that may be impacting on the student's success. Among these are:

  • family situation: parental expectations, siblings
  • health/medical
  • personality
  • outside school activities
  • culture shock
  • attachment disorder
  • social considerations
  • arrival date in Canada: remember the need for adjustment time
  • previous educational experiences (e.g. lack of experience with group work)
  • learning/teaching style match

As we continue to explore ways to support these students it will be important for schools to respond to students based on their needs and the ability of the school based staff to provide appropriate service. Every teacher in a learning service role must provide services to ELL students. While the ELL teacher cannot be expected to provide all the support for students with special needs, students do require ELL support and should be considered part of the ELL case load.

In general, when ELL students are exhibiting learning challenges that seem more complex than second language acquisition, alone, it makes sense for ELL and Learning Resource Teachers to collaborate and share their assessment and instructional expertise to plan the most appropriate learning activities and supports for the student.

While many teachers feel that a first language assessment is required, it cannot always be done either because the student has not acquired enough English, and/or the assessment tools are not available. Also school teams are encouraged to consider a student's level of acculturation, previous school experiences and social-emotional status when considering formal assessment.

Thus, observation and dynamic assessment/diagnostic teaching can be helpful in designing supportive learning activities. Members of the District Support Team as well as the school's educational psychologist may also be of assistance in this regard.

There are a few other things that can help provide information on the student's background based on the initial testing done at the School Board at reception. For students who speak Chinese and who are Level One and in some cases Level Two, a short Chinese language assessment is usually given. This proficiency is recorded on the intake sheet using either "satisfactory" or "needs improvement". Here is an example:


You can see that this student has some reading difficulties in his first language and is assessed at ELL Level One. We can predict with some reliability that s/he will likely have challenges learning to read in English.

Notice also in the above Assessment Data that there is a line for Special Needs History. Sometimes parents provide us with information and it is recorded here. If this is the case, the ESL teacher might like to meet with the parents and discuss in more detail the student's background, needs, strengths, and interests. If the parent's English language proficiency is weak, a Cultural Interpreter or a friend of the parent may be called upon to assist with interpretation at the meeting.

As well, the parents might be able to provide previous report cards and medical history from the country where the child attended school. Ask for the parents to have the pertinent ones translated if need be.

We recommend focusing on building a profile of the learner, recognizing that it takes a long time for a student to fully develop English language proficency, generally 5-7 years or more, with some people saying it takes up to ten years to fully develop the academic language needed for school.

Look for the "red flags". If or when there are concerns about a student's progress, the process of collaborative consultation with the School Based Team (SBT) should begin. Often such students don't get diagnosed because of the wait-time needed for a psych-ed assessment, however support should begin regardless.

In order to begin or continue building a profile of the learner, in preparation for initial discussions with the SBT it is beneficial to:

Review existing file information including:
  • District reception intake information (oral, reading, writing assessment, student assessment sheet)
  • Schooling history
  • Medical, including screening of hearing and vision
  • Specialist involvement (e.g., SLP, OT/PT, Counsellor)
  • Language Background Questionnaire (see attachment)
  • Any assessment data gathered to date (e.g., classroom work samples, Discover or other Kindergarten assessment, Spring Assessment information, report card information)

Take into consideration the following:
  • the student's strengths and affinities (e.g., artistic, athletic, able to demonstrate understanding in alternate ways).
  • concerns in areas other than language ( e.g., math, social behaviour, motor).
  • If the student is a newcomer (arrived in the last 4 years) consider consultation with the SWIS worker around settlement issues.

It is helpful to invite the SLP to the SBT meeting if the SLP is not a regular attendee. The SBT can also consult with the Educational Psychologist for the school and the DST as necessary.

Building a profile, interpreting the information, and planning for instruction and the strategic use of scaffolds and other adaptations are dynamic and ongoing processes that benefit from a team effort.

Questions regarding this topic are addressed in Section S: Frequently Asked Questions.

Article for further reading: 'Models for special needs students' found at: