Elementary General Education Teachers’ Decision Making Process During the Referral of English Learners to Special Education: Distinguishing between English Language Acquisition and Learning Disability

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The increasing growth of English Learners (ELs) in US public schools has brought with it several challenges. Included among the greatest challenges facing schools is determining the difference between acquiring a second language and identifying a learning-based learning disability. Klingner and Artiles (2006) have articulated that there is an alarming lack of research on this and related issues. They affirm that more research is necessary on the special education referral and eligibility decision-making process.

While the literature suggests that ELs are overrepresented in special education, it also indicates that there are few studies that look at the rationales of those who are giving the assessments to identify students, or those who are referring the students for testing (Lock & Layton, 2002). Case and Taylor (2005) suggest that the overrepresentation of ELs in special education is evidence of a need for a clearer understanding of the factors that educators need to consider prior to referring ELs to special education. This research was designed to better understand the decision-making process of the general education teacher as they select ELs for referral to the special education process.

This research study is situated at the intersection of the special education referral process, English language acquisition (ELA) and learning disability (LD). I also draw on the idea of decisional capital (Hargreaves & Fullen, 2012). A two-phased approach was used to understand the decisional process of general education teachers in grades 3 and 4 when referring students who are also ELs to special education. The data sources included surveys, semi-structured interviews, observations, referral and district documents. Findings from this study indicate that teachers largely used oral language and exposure to English to differentiate between ELA challenges and possible LD when considering referral of ELs to special education. The study suggests that teachers need a deeper understanding of best practices for teaching ELs in order to provide appropriate instruction and to prevent inappropriate referrals.