Question from CA re: struggling readers

Hello! I was asked to post three questions to this group by an adult educator in my area. A school district hired her to work with low level adult learners, many of whom are English language learners, and she's looking for some effective approaches to teach low level reading skills in classes. I'm hoping some of you can share some ideas with her. Thank you in advance for your help! If you'd like to contact her offline, here's her contact info: Natalie Bradley
Here are the three questions:
It seems that almost every ESL classroom in Adult Education has one or two students that struggle more than the rest of the class in learning how to read.   These students may or may not have learning disability.  We have found a kit called “Just Words” made by the Wilson Reading System, and we are considering offering class targeted for students with possible learning disabilities in reading as well as struggling ESL students.  
My questions are: 
1. Is there already an existing class (or other type of service) that has been designed to address this issue?  If so, I would be interested in hearing about the mechanics and the curriculum of the class.
2. Is there anyone out there that has experience with Learning Disabilities testing especially for ESL learners?  If so, I would be very interested in hearing about your criteria for screening and your testing process."
3. I've  just ordered the Just Words kit from Wilson Language System. I'm exploring it now. The first several pages of the manual provide explicit directions on how to conduct a class with this. Does anyone know anything about this method and how well it works with classes versus individuals?


Kathy, I do not think that difficulties in reading English are a function of any learning disability, but rather are due to the fact that English is so difficult to pronounce, and it is almost impossible for a beginner to read comfortably. I posted another essay on Pronunciation earlier.

In any case, I have been teaching for over 25 years have learned to start with the basics of phonics, then reading / pronouncing vocabulary words, followed by short exercises, dialogues...all the way up to Shakespeare's sonnets. Below is a Graded Reader that explains my method:


The following is an outline of the method I use to teach ENGLISH AS A SECOND OR FOREIGN LANGUAGE in my adult ESFL classes.

I use a bilingual and phonetic method of teaching to all students, whether beginners or intermediate.

My classes incorporate my websites, PUMAROSA.COM,, YouTube, and many other lessons available for free on the internet.

My course is based on teaching/learning pronunciation/speaking, reading and writing in English.

I focus on pronunciation, and I include exercises in each class.

All students are given my texts, beginning with Basic Vocablary (Vocabulario Basico).

The first class is on the alphabet. With the text in front of them, I ask the students to spell their names, their streets and the words English and Pumarosa. 

I emphasize the pronunciation of the soft g, the j, the v and show that the letter A is pronounced like the letter E in Spanish, the letter E l ike I, the letter I like Eye, pointing to my eye. And I also greatly exaggerate the sounds and ask the students to replicate my mouth movements.

In the second class, we practice greetings and salutations, with the students taking turns reading the dialogues. And each student is encouraged to memorize the phrase: “Please speak slowly.”

In the third class, the students are referred to the lesson on the numbers, which are also spelled phonetically. We practice the numbers up to one million.

I ask them to tell me their address, their telephone number, etc.

I emphasize the pronunciation of the short u, short i, th, the n at the end of the teens, and the y sound at the end.

I personally demonstrate the particular sounds and use a lot of humor.

For the th I draw a cartoon of a man sticking his tongue out with TH at the tip.

The students all take turns reading the dialogues in the text out loud and I usually give ‘reminders’ when someone stumbles.

After the class has completed most of the lessons in VB, I introduce the text called “Cognados./Cognates”. In one class I can cover most of the words that are similar in both languages.

Then it’s on to the text called ‘Confusing Words”. Here I hold up a large print sheet and read each pair out loud, then ask the class to guess which word I am about to say.

For example: Cheap or Chip.

Usually at first the students are a little bewildered, but gradually everyone can understand which word I am saying.

Then after a while I use the text called “Pronunciation Test” and read the words out loud asking which word I am saying, Three or Tree, etc.

The text called “Pronunciacion Completa” can be used at a later date.

At this point all students are give a lesson on “Useful Phrases”, such as “Como se dice…Como se dice? – en INGLES?

Included are simple questions to be used in the class.

Students are then all given a text with Nursery Rhymes from Mother Goose that focus on the lessons of the alphabet, numbers, parts of the body, etc. And each student is asked to read out loud his or her favorite.

We begin to study verb tenses in the second month or so using my text “La Gramatica Ingles” (English Grammar)

I also introduce popular, slow and romantic songs such as Unchained Melody, Stand By Me, etc.

The song sheets contain a bilingual vocabulary, and we translate the songs in class. Then we listen to the song, then each student reads or sings each song out loud.

I also introduce a few graded readers, such as “Ricardo and His Family”, which the students read out loud.

Finally, I explain often that everyone has trouble pronouncing English, and my job is to help them overcome their timidity. I explain my own difficulty learning to speak Spanish, which is much easier to pronounce. 

The above serves as a base, and I can then go on to help each student improve his or her pronunciation, including articulation and what is commonly called “Accent Reduction”. 

Pronunciation of difficult sounds with humor, reading dialogues out loud, recitation of poetry and the lyrics to songs, short conversations, gradually leading up to ….real fluency, step by step – that is the basis of learning how to speak in English.

Using this method, students can learn English at all levels, step by step, from Mother Goose to Shakespeare!

Dear Paul, Thank you for taking the time to write such a thorough explanation of your philosophy and methods. Very interesting! I will pass your generous message on to Natalie. I must apologize for my late response. I was out of town and then had a deadline to meet and I'm just catching up now. Again, many thanks! Kathy





Paul-- this is a wonderful list of steps in getting students used to English and helping them over pronunciation difficulties.  I seriously doubt, however, that this approach would be very helpful for non-literate students, since most have not yet developed a sense of what text is and what it does. Thus lessons on cognates or the sounds of letters would be completely out of context and beyond the understanding of those who have no knowledge of text at all.    It is VERY important to remember that when teachers have mixed classes where a few students --or maybe just one-- is completely non-literate but the others are not.  The non-literate may enjoy the activities and do them well, but it would be highly unlikely, in my experience of observing LOTS of classes where the teaching is like that, that they would actually be learning literacy in any systematic way.

Robin Lovrien 



Robin - Concerning Leamos and my Pumarosa program: First, I do not teach non-literate students, leaving that task to programs like Leamos. I believe strongly in L1 literacy classes for adults, and would set one up in a “live” class if it were necessary.

Computer-based programs are important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is to serve the needs of millions of people who cannot attend “live” classes. Actually, students can often learn better on a computer than they can with a tutor or teacher.

In any case, that is my two cents for the present, let’s continue this discussion!



Paul, I too, am a GREAT believer  in first language literacy where that is possible.  It is NOT possible for the majority of persons in library classes or adult ESOL programs.  Many of those who are non-literate speak unwritten languages, so that precludes first language literacy.  Those who DO speak a written language would need someone literate in that language to teach them, a pretty far reach in many cases.  Moreover, as you must know with your work with Spanish speakers from central and South America, Spanish is often THEIR second language because they speak a "lingua de pueblo"--or local, indigenous language as their first language.  A lot of times those who struggle to learn are in a bind because they are assumed to be literate in Spanish, but in fact may have a tenuous literacy in Spanish, and Spanish is not their real first language.    

Also, it is important to know what use first language literacy will be to the adult. If there are no written materials for the adult to practice with, then literacy will serve no purpose other than laying SOME groundwork for second language literacy.   There have been enough decades of instruction of non-literate persons to demonstrate that many-- maybe most,--but there are no statistics on this--- can acquire literacy in a language they are also learning to speak if instruction is thorough and careful.  

When I was studying issues related to non-literate adults, I found an interesting survey done in the DC area about whether adult learners WANTED first language literacy.    The majority of adults interviewed in that survey ultimately decided they did NOT want first language literacy because it would take time away from learning literacy in English.   Those whose first language was not common were the least likely to want to achieve first language literacy for the reason cited above. They could not see how first language literacy would help them manage in day-to-day living in the United States, but they could sure see how literacy in English would do that.   Those who live in communities where a LOT Of people speak and use the home language are more likely to want to be literate in that language. (I'm thinking of "Cambodia Town", in Long Beach CA, which is VAST and has EVERY commercial sign in Cambodian (Khmer??? I hope I am not displaying my ignorance too badly here!).  An adult who wanted to be literate in that language would have daily opportunities to use it and see it written.  

This issue of figuring out how to teach non-literate adults is certainly not limited to the US, which the wonderful LESLLA conference helps us all to remember. ( LESLLA-- Low Educated and Second language literacy Acquisition).  Other countries have had success in bringing these adults into literacy.  We are all still learning how best to do that.  

Robin Lovrien  

Robin, concerning L1 literacy instruction, you raise a lot of issues which need to be addressed.  Here is my very brief response at this time:

  1. L1 literacy should be considered a right of every adult, on an equal footing with any other area of adult education. And, in my opinion, every effort should be made to provide instruction to those who need and want it.
  2. L1 literacy is necessary for a solid base to learn English as a Second or Other Language.
  3.  There are many free or low cost programs available, which also provide training.  Spanish speakers make up approximately 75% of ESL classes, and Plaza Comunitaria (1) and (2) offer Spanish literacy. In some pre-ESL programs, students “graduate” from Leamos to Pumarosa and then on to more “advanced” ESL in community colleges.
  4. There are either no or very few “unwritten” languages at this time.  It would be interesting to make a list of these languages to see if there has been any progress made.
  5. If adult students do not want classes in L1 literacy, they, of course, are not required to take any. But often people will become interested when a class is offered and others like it.

In conclusion, I think we need further discussions about the issue of L1 literacy as well as the use of L1 in ESL.




Paul and others,

Regarding your fourth point about the number of written languages, according to Ethnologue there are likely 3,233 unwritten languages, about 45% of the world's languages. Taking into account that the writing system for some languages may not be used by many speakers could raise that estimate considerably.

The exact number of unwritten languages is hard to determine. Ethnologue (20th edition) has data to indicate that of the currently listed 7,099 living languages, 3,866 have a developed writing system. We don't always know, however, if the existing writing systems are widely used. That is, while an alphabet may exist there may not be very many people who are literate and actually using the alphabet. The remaining 3,233 are likely unwritten.   David J. Rosen

Hello Dr. Robin and all, I have not read this entire conversation, but wanted to jump in. I do think it would be absolutely ideal if non literate adults could get instruction in their L1, then English. However, I agree that oftentimes this is just not possible to arrange. I taught non and semiliterate ESL adults, mostly refugees who spoke non-Roman alphabet languages, for five years at our community college's New Arrival School. I wrote a literacy curriculum for them since I could not find anything low enough (and appropriate for adults) that would teach them foundational literacy from the ground up. My book is in print now and is called At the River and Other Stories for Adult Emergent Readers (Wayzgoose Press, 2016). It has worked for my students and for many others as well. The level is below Sam and Pat and Talk of the Block, which I use with students who have learned the basics with At the River. I would also like to share with you a list of resources for low literate ESL students and their teachers. With the help of Patsy Egan, I updated the list in Jan 2017. You can find it on my website:​. I believe the resource list is also on the LESLLA site and on LINCS. Finally, I strongly recommend LESLLA, an amazing group that is working to discover best practices for our ESL literacy students. They are having a conference in Portland Aug 10-12. I attended their 2015 conference and benefitted tremendously.





Taking a stab at your questions, Kathy and Natalie.
1. Is there already an existing class (or other type of service) that has been designed to address this issue?  If so, I would be interested in hearing about the mechanics and the curriculum of the class.

I am sure that others here will drop in with resources to help you out. Our LINCS Resource Collection has several good resource to add to those that you have mentioned.

I don't usually have beginning ESL and ABE students work on literacy in the same space. Their needs are different, and often, ESL students are very literate in their own languages, so rather than reading skills, they would need to acquire other language skills, especially oral proficiency. You might check the LINCS collection for the following to get started. Below is a taste. There are many other titles there as well. - Teaching Analogy Phonics. This resource is designed to equip ABE/ESL reading teachers with (1) an explanation of why analogy phonics instruction is recommended and (2) a "toolkit" that includes lesson plans, instructions, models, a variety of engaging student handouts for use in the classroom,  and lists of word family relatives for ready access in designing analogy instruction. -Beginning Alphabetics Tests and Tools. Beginning Alphabetics Tests and Tools (BATT) strives to provide a ‘principled’ system for ABE/ESL teachers who want and/or need to develop their students’ knowledge of Roman alphabet letters, English letter-sound patterns, sight or high frequency words, and transfer of those letter-sound-word skills to text fluency and comprehension. - A Report on the Minnesota Student Achievement in Reading (STAR) Project.STAR is a project of the U.S. Department of Education that provides training and support for teachers of intermediate reading students in effective, evidence-based practices in the four major components of adult reading instruction: alphabetics, fluency,vocabulary, and comprehension.

2. Is there anyone out there that has experience with Learning Disabilities testing especially for ESL learners?  If so, I would be very interested in hearing about your criteria for screening and your testing process."

I hope that someone in the Disabilities in AE group will comment on this question. I would caution you to be very careful using the term "testing" for LD with students . There have been programs closed for "diagnosing" disabilities" themselves instead of following requirements for having licensed personnel to do that. On the other hand, you can screen and adapt instruction to fit your observation of how students learn best. Following is one site among many that provide helpful information in that regard.
3. I've  just ordered the Just Words kit from Wilson Language System. I'm exploring it now. The first several pages of the manual provide explicit directions on how to conduct a class with this. Does anyone know anything about this method and how well it works with classes versus individuals? -I am not familiar with the resource.

What other suggestions/comments do others have regarding the questions posed here? Leecy

Dear Leecy, Thank you for your very helpful and considered message. The resources you've shared are particularly helpful. I will pass your message on to Natalie. I agree with you that it would be best to separate beginning ABE and ESL students but Natalie has said there is some reason they might not be able to do that. I hope your message will encourage that separation. Please accept my apologies for my late response. I was out of town and then had a deadline to meet and I'm just catching up now. Again, many thanks! Kathy

I'm glad that you found the resources here useful, Kathy. Be sure to invite and encourage Natalie to join us here. If she needs help, just holler ( and I'll lend a hand.Not to worry about being "late" responding, Kathy. That's the nice thing about asynchronous discussions! Leecy

Hi Kathy, Thank you for these important questions. In my experience, what you describe is a common scenario in adult ESL classes, i.e., some learners struggle with reading and writing more than others. The difference is almost always due to limited formal schooling. In other words, for myriad reasons, a significant number of immigrants and refugees have had limited opportunities to learn to read and write in their primary language. Those who have a solid foundation in print literacy in their home language do not struggle in the same way. Since we learn to read once, we apply all that we know about reading to the task of reading in the language we are trying to learn. If we have not learned to read and write, then we usually need to be taught to make sense of print.

It's important not to assume the issue is a disability. The LINCS ELL-U course Teaching Emergent Readers is a great primer for teachers who want to learn the basics of how to approach working with English learners who have had limited or interrupted formal schooling. These learners do need to be taught phonemic awareness and decoding through language they can understand. Teaching them to read in their primary language would be ideal; however, this is usually not feasible, so we want to build print literacy on the English they know and can produce in speaking, i.e., we build print literacy on an oral language foundation.

We are fortunate to have many more resources to address this issue than we have had in the past. For example the Low Educated Second Language and Literacy Acquisition (LESLLA) is a group of researchers that has provided a great deal of information to the field in recent years. You can find many excellent articles at their website. Our colleagues in Canada have a wealth of resources on their website, the ESL Literacy Network, including an entire book chock full of practical considerations for working with this population that is available for free download.

In addition, we've had numerous valuable discussions in our community here on LINCS on this topic in the past. Dr. Robin Lovrien Schwarz is an expert and has facilitated discussions in our community.

And the New American Horizons video series features a wonderful video of an adult ESL classroom with emergent readers.

I'm sure members will have more helpful suggestions to pass along to you.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP

I have had a lot of success with teaching adult ESL students how to read with a method I call bilingual and phonetic.

So, I think that when we talk about teaching adult ESL students how to read, we need to describe what method and materials we use.

Do you teach phonics when you teach reading in English? Do students read out loud in class? Are the lessons “graded” in the sense that they go from learning how to read vocabulary words, then simple sentences, then dialogues, etc. - on up? Please review my essay: From Mother Goose to Shakespeare.

The pronunciation of English is very difficult for adult students, and hinders or blocks them from learning to read.

In any case, to get a good idea of my approach, please visit

I would like to share another resource that may be helpful to struggling ESL learners if they are Spanish speakers:  Leamos (Let's Read).     

Leamos is an online Spanish literacy course for Spanish speakers with only two years or less of formal education.  It starts at the very beginning and teaches them to read and write basic Spanish, which then makes it easier for them to have success in ESL classrooms.  The program is delivered online and the student just uses the mouse to click on answers while going through the course.  It requires someone to help them log on to get started, but once they are comfortable with the course they can study on their own.

My library (Azusa, CA) and several others in California have had some adults successfully learn to read with it.  I can tell you there's nothing as inspirational as the smile of a 52-year old woman who reads a passage aloud for the first time in her life.

I am ALL for computer based reading programs, but as a remedial reading tutor of many decades'e experience, I wonder about students learning to read and "write" without the actual kinesthetic input of writing the letters and words.   I often remind teachers of the low and non-literate that literate persons have tremendous kinesthetic memory of letters and even words. This is easily demonstrated by writing a letter on someone's back and asking him or her what letter it was.  EVERYONE can identify letters this way without knowing what it was going to be or seeing it written because our muscle/kinesthetic memory is so strong.   Without that, memory for how letters are formed and how they look is never really developed.  It is that memory that allows for fluent handwriting of letters and words.  

As a perfect combination of the two, in a large adult ESL program in my state,  I encountered a sensational tablet-based literacy system for children that requires writing letters first with fingers and then with a stylus.  It allows for the development of muscle memory, visual memory for the shapes of letters and eventually visual memory for letter sequences.  It was terrific!  It was a program for children , but was used by non-literate adult ELLs who were able to work on their own and quickly develop some basic literacy skills.  

Robin  Lovrien (Schwarz)


Sue, the kinesthetic aspect you mention reminds me of having some of my struggling adult learners even write on each others back. Of course, culture has to be honored here since it involves touching; But talk about fun! :) Thanks for sharing the great idea! Leecy

Thank you VERY much Susan, for mentioning the discussions we have had on the topic of struggling ESL learners.  I hope they are still in the archives of LINCS.  

And thank you Leecy for the very interesting information about the teaching resources, and to Paul for his very practical suggestions on helping ESL learners to learn to read.   Leecy, I was interested in reading that "programs have been closed" for testing for LD on their own. It isn't clear whether these were ESL programs, but I have said for years, to skeptical audiences in some cases, that the field of ESOL was only one misdiagnosed student away from a lawsuit that would really hurt everyone....I have consulted on and written about numerous ESL students who were diagnosed as mentally retarded when they were evaluated for learning disabilities.   I believe that there are NO tools available (except possibly in Spanish) for legally evaluating adult ELLs for learning disabilities. The law requires that such tools be normed and standardized, yet it is pretty much impossible for a test to be standardized (and include a norming population) on the type of students that appear in adult ESOL programs.  (and how, I ask, do you standardize a test  on persons who cannot read in their own language much less English?).   Also, the law requires that any person administering a test for the purposes of evaluating for LD be qualified to do so-- in the case of evaluating ELLs, this would mean the person would have to be bilingual, bicultural and experienced in testing adults, and knowledgeable about learning problems.   Pretty high bars, I think.  For more on the challenges of evaluating adult ELLS, see the chapter I wrote in Learning to Achieve (the original version), which was published in 2010 --and might be available here on the LINCS resources-- or in ERIC or on google scholar.   (under the name Robin Lovrien Schwarz)  

In my work, I urge teachers who want to jump immediately to learning disabilities to realize several things.  First, as I noted above, is the reality that testing should NOT be considered.  Second is the reality that there are MANY factors that cause adult ELLs to struggle that have NOTHING to do with learning disabilities.  One factor is the setting itself.  It is very common to have "struggling readers" in a mixed level class.  Students who have low education will necessarily look impaired compared to educated students who are learning to read in English in most cases.   This is an age-old problem.  There has been much written about the challenge of the mixed class issue in ESL.  There is no way low or non-educated ESOL learners can be taught or evaluated at the same pace or level as their more literate peers.  Therefore it is critical to know EXACTLY how educated EVERY student actually is.   Those with little or no education are not just different from the others-- they are running on a different racetrack, as it were.  They have MUCH to learn about how to "do" school, how to deal with visual information, and how to learn.  And then, if it is found that there are truly low educated persons, it behooves the teacher to learn a LOT about this population.They canNOT be taught as other learners are taught.  Susan cited several excellent sources for that purpose.   

Another frequently overlooked factor is whether the person can SEE.  Seriously-- this is often a problem in adult ELLs, who may have had little or no access to healthcare and vision care.  Poor vision is more often a cause of poor reading than one might think.  In a class of 20 students I evaluated recently in an adult ESL program, four --who were referred to my attention precisely because they were not making progress and were struggling mightily--had severe vision problems.  It required some conversation and questions coming from several angles for these students to finally admit they could not really see what was on the page, the board or both--even though the teacher insisted she had asked them if they could see.  Several had interpreted that question differently than she intended; one simply did not understand, and wanting to please the teacher, said "yes."    Since no one has to see YOU answer, ask yourselves if you have EVER asked whether your learners could actually see or not..... 

Of course, issues of adult language learning interfere mightily with many learners' progress.. As Paul noted, many adult learners are really stymied by English pronunciation. There are solid reasons for this, and frequent repetition by itself is not helpful.   These learners need multiple opportunities to hear words in non-pressured situations.  They need to be able to say the words without being embarrassed in front of other students, a situation all the more painful if the students know they are lagging behind others in pronunciation or auditory comprehension.    This calls for seriously differentiated instruction-- which I recommend achieving through use of games and other hands-on activities that can be tailored exactly to the needs of individual students or small groups of students.   

Paul leans heavily on phonics... I lean toward a broader building of phonological processing skills. When these are weak, reading just does not progress, in my experience.   I have written extensively about these and am producing some videos and training materials about evaluating and strengthening these foundation skills.   These skills include being able to count how many words are in a sentence, awareness of syllables, and eventually phonemes, and RHYMING.  I put a heavy emphasis on rhyming, as I learned many decades ago when I was being trained as a reading disabilities specialist that if a person cannot hear or produce rhyme in English, he or she is unlikely to be able to read competently.  I have had a number of cases of struggling ESL learners, even highly literate ones, that confirmed that issue.  There is a small body of research that supports the importance of direct teaching of syllable awareness to emerging literacy learners, and ample evidence among reading researchers that native English speakers who have mild to severe reading problems very often have weak phonological skills.  In any case, besides assuring they can rhyme, I find one of the most useful exercises of all is to teach students to count words in sentences.   It might shock some of you to ask your students to repeat a sentence EXACTLY-- and have them give you a mangled version-- missing plurals, articles, prepositions and tense inflections.....  Word counting brings their attention to individual words in a sentence.   You don't have to do it for EVERY sentence-- just five minutes or so per class-- give as many students as possible a chance to count.  Say a sentence and ask how many words are in it.   Make the sentences easy at first and then extend them.    I find this incredibly helpful in increasing auditory comprehension and attention to small words.    

As for the Wilson-based materials----I have always felt the "straight" Wilson materials were not well suited to ESL learners for several reasons.  The language used in them is designed for native English speakers and does not reflect the order in which English learners learn the language.  While it is helpful to have linguistic predictability, if the students have no concept of the meaning of the words, which in the case of the original Wilson system were often arcane to fit the patterns being presented, then the language is not of much use.   For ESL students who have limited language, it is not helpful to teach decoding for itself.      Also Wilson materials I am familiar with have no pictures. This is about the worst case scenario in my opinion.  Language learners NEED visual support to help grasp and retain the meanings of words for quite a while at the beginning.  I learned a language of West Africa without pictures and it was agony.... I so wished there had at least been drawings, as I am an extremely visual learner.    I do not know the program referred to, so it may avoid these problems.  However the two adult literacy books--- Sam and Pat and Talk of the Block-- both derived from Wilson reading materials-- avoid both problems-- they are both designed for beginning literacy English learners, and in my opinion, VERY good.     There are lots of supporting materials now for both books.    I saw other materials that looked very promising at conferences last fall.   I will be eagerly looking at the displays at COABE to see if publishers have answered the many needs of teachers and learners.  

As noted, I have written about learning challenges, low/non-literate students and phonological skills in many places.   google scholar has most of them.   If I can be of further assistance to Natalie, have her contact me off list  at 

Thank you so much for allowing me to expound on a topic very dear to me.  It is good to have raised the question of LD in ESOL learners yet again.    Robin Lovrien (Schwarz)






Thanks, Dr. Robin, for sharing your experience and insights.  I'm curious if you know of any useful resources, or case law, to help Community-Based ESOL (CBO-ESOL) programs understand their responsibilities in serving learners with all types of disabilities? 

I agree with you that most programs aren't likely to have the qualified staff needed to identify LD in ESOL learners, and that there is sometimes a rush to identify LD as the reason why a learner may be struggling in classes.  However, what about with other learners, where there are physically-observable signs of a disability, and a possible impact on learning?  Based on the physical aspects of a disability - vision, hearing, mobility, for example - what are the requirements that programs must follow to address adult learners' rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?  

Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) is a function of every state government, and serves the needs of legal residents with a range of disabilities, who want to go to work in a competitive work environment.   I'm curious if you know of any state VR systems, or CBO-ESOL programs, that have done a particularly good job of connecting learners with disabilities to services that directly help them both complete their education, and find and maintain employment?  It is critical that we start looking for these examples, and developing models of excellence, especially in consideration of WIOA mandates to work across agencies, in serving our most vulnerable populations.

I look forward to hearing what others have to say about collaborating to support learners with disabilities in ESOL programs.

Mike Cruse

Disabilities in Adult Education Moderator


Michael-- while this is not my field of expertise per se, of course it is important to think about how best to accommodate English learners with disabilities other than (undiagnosable) LD.    As a teacher of ESL in a university setting, I had some experience with students with physical disabilities-- vision impaired, hearing impaired and physical disabilities.  The biggest problem in my view is that these students are often unaware that they have the right to accommodations.  I will never forget the young woman from the Middle East who was on crutches and labored--and I do mean labored-- her way across campus from one class to another.  I finally asked the office of disability services why they were not serving her, and the answer of course, was that she had not once she was encouraged to do so, her classes were rearranged so she did not have to walk far nor climb stairs (there were still buildings without elevators.).  

The blind student had an interpreter, and the deaf students had signers at all times.  As far as I can tell, there is no reason any ESL student with a disability should not be accommodated (though the cost to programs for an interpreter or signer could be difficult.)      The only constraint on accommodation for the visually impaired would be language-- i.e. the interpreter would need to be bilingual-- and for the hearing impaired, a knowledge of sign language or the ability to facilitate lip reading in the person's language would be critical.   Physical disabilities-- mobility impairment-- must definitely be accommodated.  Whatever ADA compliance a program must meet for ANY student, must be extended to ALL students.  In programs that do not receive any government money, however, there may be little leverage.     

To illustrate the need to find out about students' impairments, I offer this example, which I wrote about in Focus On Basics, a publication put out a decade or so ago.   I encountered one person in a program who was seriously hearing impaired but whose impairment had never been identified.  To me the biggest difficulty in accommodating ESL students is that they most often, in my experience, will not self-identify if the disability is not too obvious.  I have maintained for years that this is largely due to cultural differences, since in many, many other cultures, persons with disabilities are barred from schools or ejected.  Thus a person with a disability  would fear being ejected from an ESL program-- that is what this lady told me was her reason for not telling her teachers for THREE YEARS that she could barely hear.   The result of that was that she was struggling mightily in her ESL Phonics course ( what can I say.....) , a course she did not need, as she was highly literate in English, but the staff had never determined that-- BECAUSE she had reported only 2 years of school in her country.  She had only 2  years  because she had to leave school after surgery on one ear-- she could not go back to school hearing impaired.   But her mother kept up her schooling and, as I say, this woman was highly literate in English and came to the English school to extend her writing skills and vocabulary.   Worse, however, she was being seriously abused in her job in a a private school cafeteria, where the supervisor publicly mocked her daily for her inability to understand his directions shouted to the staff across the kitchen.   It was unfortunate that her English program had not picked up on her problem and did not help her with advocacy at her job.   And of course her employer was in serious violation of the law for not accommodating her-- but she never asked....or complained to the school. She told me when I took her into a private interview room and asked why she was having difficulty doing homework and progressing in her phonics class.  She told me the whole story in about 10 minutes...)  .    (This case was illustrative of so many issues around ESL students who huge lesson was that intake needs to be MUCH more thorough than just a few questions about prior schooling. My previous post about the students with vision problems illustrates the same issue.  They wouldn't say, and the intake didn't broach the subject of possible barriers to learning.)   

I know that Gallaudet University in Wash., DC, a college for the deaf, has classes for ESL students, who learn ASL as well as content courses with language accommodation.  

So, to reiterate, accommodation for ESL students should be the same as for other students.  The difficulty is that ESL students may not self-identify and thus their disability may not be noticeable, particularly hearing impairments and visual impairments.    Visual impairment that is not blindness may not be addressed for financial reasons-- students feel they cannot afford eye exams or glasses.    Physically impaired students should receive accommodations appropriate to their needs.  In ALL cases, however, language must be considered--interpreters must be bilingual, signers, too; persons helping the physically disabled need to know the language of the person--or have a good translation program-- and ALL need to be culturally sensitive.

Students' disabilities should not be ignored for reasons of lack of information, lack of funds, or fear of offending.   It is much worse to do nothing, in my view.  

And let me say it once more-- formal, legal LD testing is essentially impossible.  Nevertheless, some students are tested for accommodation on the GED- but they must be fluent enough and culturally aware enough that the test itself( used for LD identification) is not a barrier. Students should NOT be administered an American intelligence test, which is necessarily highly culturally biased.   Screening for prior learning challenges can be helpful.  And as I always remind teachers, there is NO special ed. in adult ed-- so diagnosis is going to do nothing in terms of getting special help.  That student will STILL be sitting in your classroom.  The most effective approach is highly differentiated instruction--not special lessons for one student-- but teaching that allows ALL students to work at their own pace on content that is meaningful to them.   

AND, I have found over YEARS of trying, that having a special ed trained tutor without ESL training work with ESL students does not work and vice versa-- ESL trained tutors with no special ed training.    A combination of both could be very helpful, though.  That is what my own background is.  I have training in special education of learning challenged students, reading disabilities and ESL and adult education.   That combination has been invaluable!!

Robin Lovrien (Schwarz)






Thanks, Robin, for sharing your years of experience and learner anecdotes.  One issue you bring up that I want to echo is the comment, "And as I always remind teachers, there is NO special ed. in adult ed-- so diagnosis is going to do nothing in terms of getting special help."  

While this might be true, there is still value for documented learners (citizens and legal residents) who have disabilities to be referred to their state's Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) system.  Learners with any type of disability are eligible to apply for services.  State's prioritize funding based on the needs of adults with the greatest barriers to employment, as evaluated by their disabilities.  However, this is a spectrum of adults who are capable of competitive employment, and not the most profoundly disabled.  These are the learners in your programs. 

The point is that VR can, and does, provide specialized support  for adult learners in CBO's, community colleges, and higher education institutions, if educational attainment is required as part of a client's employment goal. VR is a potential resource for psychological testing, medical examinations, PT/OT consultations and assistive technology evaluations that support learners' access to education.  This requires adult education and VR to work together to support learners, which has too often not happened, but it is possible.  Unfortunately, these two systems have worked in their respective silos for many years.  To change that, both sides - adult education and VR - need to find ways to collaborate on meeting the goals we all espouse for our learners/clients. So, keep an open mind.   Contact your state's VR office today, to find out more.

Mike Cruse

Disabilities in Adult Education



Mike-- I could not agree MORE about VR support for persons with physical disabilities and perhaps very obvious cognitive limitations but NOT for LD.  With the anecdote about the woman with severe hearing loss, I was illustrating just why a very thorough examination of an individual's situation needs to be undertaken if there is difficulty in learning.  This program was all set to refer this woman for LD testing.  I can assure you --because I have BEEN an LD tester (I worked at the Lab School of Washington for over 25 years)--- that no survey or test or questionnaire for LD would have caught all the problems this woman was having....(besides being hearing impaired, she had a mother with severe Alzheimer's and no help caring for her---- so missed class often (irregular attendance adds to poor progress, of course), and could not do homework at home, nor stay at the school to do it because she had to go home to her mother (late, missing, incomplete homework also contributes to poor progress).  NONE of this was known by the staff.  

Worse, when students of foreign origins are tested or evaluated using existing tools for LD identification, as I have said before, they are greatly disadvantaged by cultural and linguistic challenges of these tests.   I wrote about this extensively in the chapter in Learning to Achieve.  There have been HUGE studies at the high school level that showed that even when tests of academic knowledge and achievement were "simplified," ESL students had problems with culturally-influenced content and more.  And the construct of intelligence is so different from culture to culture that what is being tested on OUR IQ test is strictly related to the white, mainstream, middle class experience in America.  This was the point of the context discussion I wrote earlier and the work of Robert Ceci.    Thus it is ALWAYS questionable whether the IQ test gives a true picture of a non-AMerican born person's "intelligence"-- and as we know, people of color have complained and sued and generally constantly protested that IQ tests were culturally biased for them as well.....

I worked with a woman in MA who was French -speaking, originally from the Caribbean, and had severe dysgraphia-- she was completely unable to write or even copy letters of the alphabet.  She could READ English and had successfully negotiated many situations in her life:  She had a driver's license ( and could manage navigation from south of Boston to Boston-- a feat of brilliance many never manage...!!) and she had earned a CNA certificate and had worked as a CNA very successfully for many years. In all these situations, she never had to write.... then she got a new supervisor at work who wanted written notes on patients.  The woman had been in a literacy program for several terms and made little progress because writing was a key part of the curriculum.   It was decided (and I do not remember who made the referral) to ask VR to evaluate her so that she could get a tutor-- and I would be her tutor.   I, thinking surely the VR would not be doing an intelligence test, agreed to this.  But she WAS given a straight IQ evaluation and almost NO interview.   This woman--whose achievements I have listed-- came out two points below the "normal intelligence" threshold on the test-- because, of course, her first language was French and because she was unable to understand some of the questions on the test.  She was NEVER asked about writing nor evaluated for dysgraphia.   Instead, because she was supposedly "retarded"  (below normal, anyway....) she was REFUSED tutoring support!!!    You have never seen a more disheartened person.   It took some major cajoling to get her to agree to meet with me anyway-- she was convinced she would never learn.  And happily, after many months of work, she WAS able to write and copy the letters of the alphabet, but not yet write words spontaneously.     I use this case to illustrate a situation I have encountered often and have been told about or read about repeatedly:  students of foreign origin who are sent to VR for tutoring or other support, evaluated as my friend was, and then receive a score of "below normal intelligence"  because the testing materials were unsuited to them.   

With all due respect to a lot of special education teachers and professionals-- and don't forget, I am one of them--this is just a travesty of the intention of special education and of evaluations. I worked with many LD evaluators in the DC area as I moved into this field of expertise-- learning challenges in adult foreign language learners-- and over and over again had evidence from them or because of them that direct testing for LD on persons whose first language and culture is not American English is inevitably going to put those persons at risk for a diagnosis of low IQ--and ALL that that then leads to in our education and support systems.  Further investigation into how tests are standardized and normed convinced me that "our" students in adult ESOL were not and could not be part of such norming populations.   

I also refer readers to the final section of my chapter in Learning to Achieve, in which I summarize an extremely well-intentioned, coordinated effort of persons in adult ESOL and in a chapter of the Learning Disabilities Association to evaluate a group of 25 adult ESOL learners for LD.  These persons were all having supposedly severe difficulties in their learning settings and needed to get extra tutoring and other support.  In that effort, the testers themselves acknowledged after the fact that they had not studied the norming population of the tests to realize that these adults could not possibly be similar to those in the norming population--and therefore the results of the testing would be meaningless.   Instead, the adults were "evaluated"--for many the process could not even be completed because of insufficient English skills (another topic to be discussed elsewhere), and because of gross cultural differences and worse, because of very low literacy skills.  Many of these adult learners were humiliated and angry because they had done so poorly on the testing.   Of the 25 tested, ONE was successfully diagnosed with LD --that person was a college student who truly did need extra help and was struggling with some academic skills.   (he was included because someone knew the testing was going to happen and wanted to help him so he wouldn't fail out of school.  He grew up in the US and went all the way through school in English.).

This effort was not written up as a scientific study, but was reported on publicly-- and the persons involved in the testing were highly qualified LD specialists.....

As you can no doubt deduce, this is a topic near and dear to my heart-- and one which I continue to write, talk, and yes, LECTURE, about... I got into this field as I began to try to help my college ESL students who have severe problems in our classes.  I KNOW many DO have problems, but they can NOT be directly diagnosed.  After years of study, observation, interviews and questions from teachers and programs, I learned that the only reliable response to students who struggle in learning is better, more highly differentiated teaching--and an acknowledgement that we do NOT have any norms for adult ESOL learners who are NOT in college-based English classes (where there is a huge body of evidence about what can be expected of educated English language learners).  One of the primary reasons adult ESOL students are presumed to have LD is that they do not progress as expected in curricula and with teaching that is designed for younger, literate, able language learners.  The learning range for adult ESOL learners has not been constructed with the less speedy learners in mind......

I realize that some kinds of support might be available from VR for adult ESOL learners who struggle to learn for reasons other than physical disabilities, but in my experienced-honed view, based on a LOT of evidence,  it is far too risky to have them evaluated in the way that English speaking students are evaluated.  

Robin Lovrien (Schwarz), M.Sp.Ed: LD; Ph.D.   

Hi, Robin -

Thanks for your continued insight into this issue.  Your research and firsthand experience speak to the complexity faced by adult educators working to serve struggling ESOL learners.  Have you ever done any work with VR agencies, or other non-ESOL adult workforce services, to help practitioners understand the challenges faced by assessing both the learning and physical capacity needs of non-native English speakers? 

I think this would be a welcome opportunity to help agencies find ways to further differentiate support for ESOL learners on the next steps after leaving their ESOL program.  Again, as we're charged with serving the needs of adults under WIOA, we all need to collaborate more to better understand how programs, and related support services, intersect, from the learner/client perspective.  The programmatic silos of the past need to start reflecting the lived realities of our learners who are operating not only within adult education, but also workforce, healthcare, and other societal systems that are very different from the equivalents in their native countries.   

Mike Cruse  



Michael-- I  would like to respond to this phrase in your posting, "differentiate support for ESOL learners on the next steps after leaving their ESOL program."  This statement leads me to believe that what you are referring to is the problem of ESOL learners who "crash and burn" once they transfer from ESOL classes to reading and academic classes.  I am going to presume that  you are referring to the kinds of classes that are more or less remedial for many English speaking students who leave high school and want to do college but cannot manage college level classes.   I have offered a number of workshops for teachers of such classes, who are often stymied by the low skills of the ESOL learners compared to those of the English speaking students. It is no wonder the ESOL students are suspected of having learning or reading disabilities.   As the discussion on this list has indicated in the last few days, one of the chief reasons for that is the lack of cultural and linguistic information needed for the ESOL students to manage the reading and testing that is done in these classes.    What I offered in my workshops were some insights on challenges of second (or other) language reading --the process of reading in second or other language is NOT like that of reading in first language in many important ways, as Keiko Koda and others have tried to teach us.    Koda, herself a second-language speaker and scholar, asked herself as a young graduate student how it was that persons from other cultures who seemed to have similar educational backgrounds made such different progress in reading English. She went on to do groundbreaking research on the MANY influences on reading in a new language.   She has written extensively about her findings--and made us aware of such things as the fact that the NATURE of a written script heavily influences how a reader of that script will "read" in a new language.  If a language is easily decoded, as English is NOT, then a reader fluent in that language will struggle with the fact that English is not reliable in decoding.  Or, that no matter how fluent one may be in a script that has NO resemblance to our Roman script, reading our script will be as if starting all over.  Is it any wonder students appear to be reading disabled?

And, as noted in previous posts here, the vocabulary and linguistic knowledge needed for reading the same materials as English speakers read is quite different from that which is taught in ESOL classes.   This is the phenomenon Jim Cummins and others identified as CALP---cognitive academic language proficiency.  Cummins, and Catherine Collier, who does extensive work around learning challenges in ESL students in K-12, showed that there is a lag of as much as TEN YEARS for ESL students to acquire the vocabulary and reading skill necessary to compete with AVERAGE English speakers in reading text books and tests, directions on things and other non-contextual language.   This fact is hugely under-recognized in adult ESOL settings, in my experience.   Thus for an ESOL student to have exited the ESL program does NOT mean he or she is actually ready to read materials in the same settings as English speaking peers.   Stephen Krashen would agree. He is a guru of ESL reading, and has asserted that ESL students need to do FAR more extensive reading than they actually ever do if they are to learn the language skills and vocabulary needed for reading comfortably in English in academic settings.

Moreover, in my research into second (other) language reading, I also found fascinating information confirming what we should know anyway: that, as one researcher put it, "persons from other cultures not only think about different things [than persons from our culture do], they think DIFFERENTLY."   This view was gorgeously discussed and illustrated with MANY  examples by Helen Fox, in her priceless book  (her dissertation) . Listening to the World: Cultural Issues in Academic Writing,   published in 1994.   It is still available on the web if her name and the title are googled.   Fox worked for many years in writing centers in two large universities and wrote up her findings on the differences in cultural attitudes and ideas about reading content and writing assignments in those settings.  It is one of the most informative books I have ever read  Having taught college ESL in several settings over many decades, I was both sorry I had not found this sooner, and happy to finally have confirmed what I had been observing for a long time.  EVERY teacher who has ESL students in any kind of academic or work preparation class or community college ESL, etc. should read this book.  It is short-- about 150 pages-- and a RIVETING read....

So in short, one way to really help the ESOL students and their teachers is to teach their teachers (who are not ESOL teachers)  a whole lot more about how the ESOL students are different from the English-speaking, American born students, and how they can help second (other) language readers to boost their reading and vocabulary skills.   

Robin Lovrien  


Robin -

Thanks for sharing your - and others - research on the subject.   There are a lot of 'next steps' for adults leaving ESOL programs, from remedial and post-secondary education, to workforce development, and on-the-job training.  While the challenges you've noted are clear, my bigger question is what are we, as adult educators, doing to share these best practices with those professionals working with ESOL learners outside of our adult education classes?  The workshops you've offered sound like they would benefit not only adult educators, but academic counselors, case managers, and employment specialists. 

What are your thoughts on ways we can share the message of how ESOL learners are different from their English-speaking, American born peers?  How are others communicating with non-adult ed. support networks about what we know about helping our second (other) language learners improve their academic and functional reading and writing skills?

Mike Cruse 


Michael-- thank you for challenging me to to think about the next steps..... it is a big and difficult question.  There is no easy answer to it.... and I know some of the persons you speak of.  A number of persons in the latest workshops I did in MA were NOT in adult ESOL settings-- several taught workplace English, others were in refugee centers, etc.  --and sometimes persons from other areas of academic support at Community colleges show up in these sessions, too.   And now I do a lot of work giving orientation sessions for literacy volunteers, who by and large have none of the training or background of ESOL teachers, but who often carry the load of English instruction and cultural orientation for persons who need English but for whom there are no classes.   

In this age of heavy focus on getting ESOL learners into jobs/the workplace,  I might suggest that a pre-requisite for employing or training persons who are English learners would be attendance at one or two sessions on some of the key issues, or participation in an online workshop by persons who will be supervising them.  If online workshops are done in real  time, they can be very interesting for all----participants can ask questions sort of privately and not be embarrassed by not knowing about an issue.  

I will think more about this-- -perhaps others have ideas of how to help make this happen.   I will ask the ESOL director of a large literacy and workforce training organization in Portland, ME what her organization does about this challenge...

Robin Lovrien 

This community’s discussion around struggling adult readers and possible learning disabilities (LD) in English language learners (ELLs) has been very interesting. As project lead for the LD/ESL assessment pilot (circa 2004-2006) mentioned by Dr. Robin, I want to respectfully clarify four comments. (1) The LDA assessment team did not set out to diagnose adult ELLs with LD, but rather to determine IF our existing assessment process could be used with them. We found that our screening tools were crucial; however, non-verbal IQ and academic achievement tests did not result in reliable scores. (2) Only 21 ELLs completed a full LD assessment (both IQ and achievement tests), and yes, only one was determined to have a learning disability. (3) I do not recall sharing low (or suppressed) scores with any ELLs at pre-literate or beginning levels; therefore, they were not observed to be angry or humiliated. (4) We did share and explain the scores (including Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency or CALP) with all referring teachers, some family members, and a few social service providers. Most reported a better understanding of LD and the other factors (personal, physical, emotional, educational, socio-cultural) that can significantly interfere with language and literacy progress.  At LDA, an important outcome was a return to evidence-based reading instruction for all “striving” adult readers, which is the work I strive to carry on today – like all of you! Let's keep talking.

As usual, you have so much knowledge, wisdom and experience to share!. Thank you, Robin. You bring up so many issues that I've experienced myself with my English language learners. It's good to know I'm on the right track with my thinking. I know your insights will be extremely helpful to Natalie as well. Thank you for your very kind offer to connect with her directly. I'm sure she'll be delighted. I can't thank you enough! Kathy

In my experience, teaching adult ESOL students is a whole different experience than any other group. First of all, I try not to look at any struggling student through the lens of  learning disability. Learning Disability is pretty much an American concept started and promoted by K-12 system for whatever reason. I am sure there are genuine cases of LD, among kids born with fetal alcoholic syndrome or other substance  abuse, but a lot of kids are just labelled LD to justify lack of progress. We are taking the same approach to adult ESOL students. I have never seen a single student so far in my career with any deficiency in their ability to learn. Most often, they need a different approach based on their age, language background,native language literacy and even their philosophy about education. Often times, they have little or no language experience about the content we are supposed to teach with the assumption that they need this. Our tests are not culturally sensitive. One example- from the Best Plus listening speaking test that is approved by NRS-  'Lasagna is my favorite food, what is your favorite food?' It is  insulting to students that come from war torn countries with food scarcity or even students from extreme poverty. I know it from the responses I get from some experienced students. We also assume that students know what Lasagna is. I wouldn't teach newcomers about Lasagna or any other common American food right away. They have no use for it. I will build on the names of  their food items. Then compare them with  similar American food items, but our wonderful textbooks with beautiful illustration won't allow it. I never stick with one text book. I create lessons using resources to cater to  the students I have.

What I have seen a lot is physical disability or diseases hindering learning. We don't have to be doctors or medical professionals to suggest a hearing check or vision test. I have sent students to get  dentures. With out front teeth there is no pronunciation practice. I have suggested hearing tests to students after noticing them consistently missing the ending sounds in both speaking and writing. Students produce words as they hear, not how they are supposed to produce. Border line hearing loss is so common among older adult students in certain jobs. I often talk to the family members. If the family is on board with you, it is very easy. I offer it as a concern to remedy a situation, not a criticism. If students have difficulty with paying, then I will provide them with contact information for low cost options. Except for dental work, I never had any without insurance coverage.

Labeling a student LD doesn't accomplish anything. We have little or no options or funding to provide help. Even in K-12 schools in my state, the only options are longer time for tests or someone else read the questions for you. How does that work in any adult education class? Then the question again is the same. Why are we identifying students as LD?

Anitha (athomas) - I agree 100%. Each point you made is valid and the only real option is to add to the list. You mentioned that trying to label adults with LD does not accomplish anything. Exactly. What on earth is an average ESL teacher supposed to do if a student has a demonstrable LD?

Learning disorders come under the domain of Psychologists and other specialists with respect to diagnosis and treatment. 

But I think what you said in the following sentence is particularly "on the money":

"Most often, they (adult learners/students) need a different approach based on their age, language background, native language literacy and even their philosophy about education.

Often times, they (adult learners/students) have little or no language experience about the content we are supposed to teach with the assumption that they need this."

You also mentioned the fallibility of Tests, which I think will loom large in future discussions because "assessment" seems to be a primary concern among some people. In other words, if we are teaching under false premises, then the results will not be very good.

Well, I hope your post stimulates further discussion and "debate".

Paul Rogers

Anitha (I hope this is correct-- I got it from Paul's post)-- your post made me purr.....:)))   It is such a joy to encounter a teacher such as you whose work is clearly driven by observation and common sense and a desire to do whatever it is your students need for them to succeed.     I LOVED your example of the Best Test item--- this kind of cultural bias is at the core of my perpetual objection to using tests written by and for people in our culture to determine whether an ESL learner has made progress......I make this point often in my trainings, referring to a study on K-12 ESL students and how much cultural bias in test items influenced their outcomes in reading comprehension and then on tests.  One item that was used in that write up as an example, was the simple statement, "My mother served me breakfast."    The researchers noted that persons from different cultures have different mental pictures and gastronomic experiences with "breakfast," and so understand it differently-- and also, in many other cultures, mother does NOT serve breakfast...... When I train, I put up pictures of "breakfasts" from other cultures--- not what the usual American breakfast is, for sure--- and my audience quickly gets this problem.   

I also love that you challenge readers to address the question, WHY are we identifying students as LD?   Those who have the impulse to do so need to really examine what it is they expect and want out of such a designation.    As you note, the notion of LD was INVENTED to have a way to categorize those who were not making progress compared to the top of the bell curve... and there were many other issues involved in such a designation as well.......the history of how we came to the notion of an IQ and of IQ testing made me question the whole construct from its beginning to now....It is very heartening to see you write that " I have never seen a single student so far in my career with any deficiency in their ability to learn."  This has been my very stance for decades.  I worked under a tremendous, passionate woman at a school for special needs students in Washington, DC who aggressively proved that EVERYONE can learn.   She maintained that everyone has his or her own "learning prescription"  and it was the job of the teacher or tutor to work with the student to figure out what that prescription is.... and then go from there.    It is a hugely empowering attitude for students who do struggle to learn in whatever circumstances are making it hard for them to do so.   When such students understand that their teacher or tutor is NOT out to shame, fail, compare or otherwise make them unhappy in learning, but rather is committed to figuring out what will work so that student CAN learn,  wonderful things happen.  I can attest to it.  It has happened MANY times in my career!

Thank you for your wonderful, straightforward and inspiring post.   

Robin Lovrien 



Labeling is seldom a good practice, in my view. However, identifying needs can lead to miracles in instruction.

In all of my training that deals with LD, invariably I have people come up and say, "Thanks so much. You've helped me understand myself/sibling/child/husband" for the first time! I never knew about the condition or understood him/her/myself! Whew. Of course, I like to think of people with neurological challenges as "specifically abled" (SA) instead of disabled.

Understanding how learning "disabilities" affect learners would be an excellent topic to be included in tutor training. Are we dropping that initiative?


This is very true, Leecy---  I have often had that happy experience of helping someone recognize what the basis of the learning problems apparently was... but this is possible ONLY with American born students.   I cannot stress enough what a sand trap testing (or otherwise identifying) persons of other cultural, linguistic and educational backgrounds can be when using tools developed by and for American born, life-long English speaking persons.    

The very concept of learning disabilities is a western (largely American. though other western countries and few others accede to reading difficulties and possibly writing difficulties) way of looking at students who struggle.   I threw myself into the identification and labelling of college ESL students who apparently had LD back in the 90's.   From those I was eagerly trying to help, I learned that very often my efforts were NOT welcome.  I think of a Caribbean young woman who told me she would NEVER use the (hard-won) letter from the student support services office asking her professors to accommodate her because she feared retribution. She said in her culture, students who had special needs were considered problem students and professors were unwilling to help and often humiliated them. She told me outright she would NEVER present herself as problem to her professors, no matter what the law required (i.e. that a student with an identified disability HAS to be accommodated according to the recommendations of the support services experts).   Another, who was Vietnamese, told me he could NEVER accept a diagnosis from a doctor, as that would indicate that he was "sick" and it would taint his entire family.  I had a Sudanese student in MA who definitely had learning challenges, but when I met him he was VERY angry about the diagnosis, feeling it impugned his ability to learn and work hard  His people were prided themselves on their persistence and incredibly hard work in the face of unbelievable challenges.   Still other students refused their diagnosis because no matter how hard I explained it, the translation into their language inevitably was "mentally limited"  "diminished"  etc. ( do you know that in England, "learning disabled" refers to persons with limited cognitive ability-- retarded?).  In fact, I used to do presentations with a prof. of linguistics, who was from the Gambia, on how the term "learning disabled" could be so badly understood across languages and cultures.   

I think it is important to remember Anitha's question: WHY do we want to identify and label students as LD?  In my experience teachers tend to want this because they are frustrated that a student does not learn despite what the teacher feels is adequate instruction, or teachers feel --and rightly so-- that students are frustrated at not making progress despite what seems a lot of hard work. And often teachers and programs are under pressure to move people on and out to show that instruction is effective.     However, my own investigations into these situations, as I have said here over and over, have shown that there is almost ALWAYS some other reason for the person to be struggling. (Like the student who got so angry because her GED teacher never asked her to memorize anything, and was so disgusted at how that teacher was teaching that she could not stand the class one more day......)  

And if we really look at what the best response to and support of students who learn differently is, it is attentive, individualized, meaningful teaching.   THIS is NOT different for students of ANY background who do not flow with the majority in a classroom.   Good, individualized, supportive teaching should be the way of all classrooms and teaching, not something limited only to those who have been labeled LD.   

In my view, when working with ANY adult learners, but especially adult ESOL learners, it is really important to get away from thinking about LD and think much more about what is going to help the person learn--and learn about him- or herself and what works for learning.   

Robin Lovrien  

Wow! I'm so glad I posted Natalie's questions! What excellent information you all are sharing! I know Natalie will be so grateful for your help. I can use so much of this with my own students too. Thank you! Again, I'm sorry for not expressing my thanks sooner. I was out of commission for a few days. Many, many thanks!

This is all just fabulous information and Natalie and I will both put it to good use. I so appreciate your willingness to share your wisdom and expertise. Tons of thanks! Kathy