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Hamayan et al. (2013) emphasize the importance of describing in details the actual behaviors displayed by ELL students before diagnosing and drawing conclusions about the causes of the ELLs’ difficulties and academic weaknesses. The authors contend that the first step of the ECOS diversity framework that needs to be taken, “is to describe students’ observable behavior as specifically as possible without attributing the behavior to a specific cause” (p. 36). This requires collecting work samples and sufficient accurate data, instead of drawing generalized statements based on the teacher’s perceptions or assumptions about a child. The authors explain that the language difficulties that ELLs experience are embedded in the process of learning English, and they are similar to the difficulties demonstrated by students with diagnosed learning disabilities, for example, forgetting words, language disfluencies, difficulty following oral directions, or distraction in an academic English setting. When garnering the data, educators should obtain this information across different times, settings, and by different methods so that it can be examined, compared and contrasted.
Another step of the process of the ECOS diversity framework is to explain the observed behaviors through the lenses of any of the seven integral factors described on page 44. Hamayan et al. (2013) explain that “finding explanations for ELLs’ less than optimal performance in school begins by considering the seven extrinsic factors during the explanatory phase of the process before assuming the existence of intrinsic causes due to a disability” (p. 44). Discussing possible explanations will be beneficial to not only members of the ECOS team, but first and foremost to the ELL student. During exploring diverse explanations educators learn from one another about different perspectives, cultural experiences, and areas of expertise. They also have an opportunity to clarify what they mean when using certain words or expressions. Finally, the explanation process may result in findings which will not affect future ELL’s placement negatively. It is important to know that even though the disability is present, an ELL should still be supported with ELL services which will meet his/her language needs and maximize the academic achievement.
Determining if an ELL student’s struggles with academic learning are due to language acquisition or a learning disability may be without doubt a challenging task requiring the experience, knowledge about the world, cultural awareness, and professional expertise. Most assessments of ELLs are done mainly in English, therefore the results may be interpreted incorrectly. Moreover, limiting a student to using only one language will hinder a more accurate picture of ELL skills and abilities. Educators seem to have a tendency to rather choose a disability than identify their own bias, lack of knowledge, or procedural errors. There are also many misconceptions about bilingualism, which affect the decisions made about the ELLs. Therefore, it is critical that educators understand the process of the second language acquisition, as well as are able to recognize possible characteristics associated with students with learning disabilities. They should also ask themselves if an ELL’s culture may be the possible explanation for the specific difficulties. In fact, there may be multiple possible reasons for students to exhibit a specific behavior. It truly takes a great amount of knowledge, understanding, humility and sensitivity to cease to guard against this tendency for intrinsic explanations, and stretch one’s thinking in order to better serve English language learners.
I truly like Hamayan et al. (2013) text because it provides concrete examples of probing questions, potential challenges that ELLs may demonstrate as well as possible explanations from different perspectives for typical language and academic difficulties experienced by ELLs. The article is an eye-opener, and it lays the foundations to how deep and extensive the process of diagnosing should be. I am certain, I will reach for this text, or even will buy a book in order to help me become a more reflective, better practitioner. The more knowledgeable I will become, the more successful my students will be.
Hamayan, Marler, Sanchez-Lopez, & Damico (2013), “Describing Before Diagnosing:
Observation of Specific Behaviors That ELLs May Exhibit”, Chapter 3 of Special Education Considerations for English language Learners. Philadelphia, PA: Carlson Publishing.
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