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Why Teachers of English Learners With Disabilities Need Specialized Training

English learners who are also identified as students with disabilities experience unique needs in K-12 schools—and their teachers need specialized, interdisciplinary training, experts say.

This dual-identified student cohort accounted for 15.8 percent of the total English-learner population in fall 2021, according to the updated federal data. Students with disabilities, in general, represented 14.7 percent of total public school enrollment that same year.

At Education Week’s June 20 K-12 Essentials Forum focusing on innovative approaches to special education, Lizdelia Piñón, an emergent bilingual education associate for the Texas-based advocacy nonprofit Intercultural Development Research Association, or IDRA, shared insights on what kind of teacher training best serves dual-identified students.

Integrated teacher training is needed for English learners with disabilities

When working with English learners with disabilities, teachers need to understand how students acquire language and how that works concerning their special education needs, Piñón said.

For teachers to do this effectively, they need comprehensive training that goes beyond standardized training focused either on bilingual education or special education.

“It has to be this cohesive idea,” Piñón said. “It’s an integrated training that equips our teachers with the skills and the knowledge that they need to effectively support our dual-identified English learners with disabilities.”

Such training requires a specialized curriculum that combines coursework. It should address how teachers can simultaneously work with students at different language-level proficiencies and those with different disabilities. For instance, what does instruction look like for an English learner with cerebral palsy that comes from a Mexican-American home? How is that similar or unique from another student in class?

This training must also be rooted in cultural competency allowing for students’ cultural backgrounds to be celebrated and included in the classroom, Piñón added.

Interdisciplinary teacher training programs need to be scaled up

Even as Piñón spoke of how specialized, comprehensive training can better support the multi-faceted needs of English learners with disabilities, she acknowledged a major barrier for teachers seeking to access such training: a scarcity of these programs.

Certification programs exist for bilingual education, and separately special education, but programs don’t often intersect.

Piñón, who is based in Texas, noted that Texas Christian University implemented a teacher-training program in the past two years where all graduates have to be certified in both special education and bilingual or English-as-a-second-language education, though such requirements are rare.

Legislators in the Lone Star state did pass House Bill 2256 in 2021 promoting a bilingual special education certificate for the state of Texas, but implementation is still in the works, Piñón said.

Even as higher education institutions scale up any programming that prepares teachers working with such this intersectional student population, Piñón hopes such programming is made affordable and geographically accessible to teachers.

Current teachers can collaborate across departments

Educators don’t need to wait on specialized training to offer comprehensive support for English learners with disabilities.

Existing special education, English-as-a-second-language teachers, and general education teachers alike can strategically collaborate to ensure students’ needs are being met across the school day. Whether that’s through monthly or quarterly meetings, Piñón said districts need to invest in giving teachers time to come together and share insights.

Specialized teacher training for working with English learners with disabilities also needs to prepare teachers on how to work with various team players, including speech pathologists, English-as-a-second-language experts, and special education teachers, Piñón said. That includes working together in discussing how to best use emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence tools, with students.

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