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Expert Q&A

I heard that learning disabilities affect 15% of the population. Does this number increase when students are immersed in a second language? I work in an immersion school and our numbers are higher than that.

Research has shown that being exposed to a second language, even in an immersion setting, does not cause learning disabilities; however, certain factors come into play with English language learners (ELLs) that may cause them to be over-identified for special services. First of all, limited English language proficiency often makes it difficult to accurately evaluate ELLs. Only by testing students in their primary language, as well as in English, can we really have an accurate picture of what they know. Unfortunately, limited resources and a lack of appropriate testing instruments often make it impossible to do this. Consequently, students may be inappropriately assigned to special services, based on English evaluation alone.

In addition, because expectations are different from one country to another, there may be cases in which students who are considered to be functioning well in their native country may not meet expectations in U.S. schools and may be referred for special services. The fact that many of these students have had interrupted schooling prior to coming to the U.S. contributes to the problem.

Finally, some of the characteristics of limited English proficiency can be confused with learning difficulties. Native speakers of Spanish, for example, may find it difficult to master the English short vowel sounds, either in speech or in reading and writing, simply because most of these are sounds that do not occur in Spanish. This difficulty may be misinterpreted as evidence of a reading disability or a speech/language disability. The issue of learning difficulties among English language learners is complex and often puzzling. Based on existing research, however, it is safe to say that being immersed in a second language does not cause a higher incidence of learning disabilities.

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