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New online tools to instruct and assess English learners with significant cognitive disabilities

June 18, 2019
by Lynn Armitage, Wisconsin Center for Education Research communications

In the world of K-12 English language proficiency assessment, a population of U.S. students is often overlooked, according to Laurene Christensen, a principal investigator at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research

Although federal law, requires each state to assess the English language proficiency of these underserved students, many states have never done so because they lack the knowledge and resources on how to go about it, says Christensen.

Laurene Christensen
Christensen
Now, due to work by a team of education professionals and researchers — and a grant from the U.S. Department of Education — groundbreaking instructional materials and guides are available to help educators understand alternate English language development and assessment for students who have diverse needs related to language and disability. The comprehensive series of nearly 30 reports, briefs, tools, presentations and other resources is available online and by mail at no charge. 

The materials are based on findings of an online survey and approximately 100 classroom observations and interviews conducted over a year in multiple states by the Alternate English Language Learning Assessment (ALTELLA) project

Launched in 2017 at WCER in UW-Madison’s School of Education, ALTELLA is a research partnership between WCER and five state education departments — Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, South Carolina, and West Virginia. It was funded with a $1.97 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to the Arizona Department of Education. 

“This research has the potential to improve assessment methods, professional development, instruction, and overall accountability for this underserved group of students, significantly expanding what they can learn and enhancing how they live,” says Christensen, who directed the project. “Teachers want their students to be successful after they complete their K-12 education, and this project helped shed light on the importance of learning English as part of the pathway to success.”

The most significant finding in the ALTELLA project resulted from the Individual Characteristics Questionnaire, an online survey collecting data on more than 1,500 students with significant cognitive disabilities who were identified as English learners. Survey results indicate that almost one-quarter of these students do not receive English language services – even though public schools are legally required to offer language development services to all students who are English learners. 

Indira Ceylan, a WCER project manager, says that another surprising finding from the ALTELLA study is that English language specialists and special education teachers rarely work together. “We have often found that special education teachers don’t think about students with significant cognitive disabilities as being language learners; and often, school administrators think special education teachers are in charge of all the learning for these students, including language development.”

ALTELLA is working hard to change these misperceptions, says Ceylan. “These kids have a gift coming from multilingual families that is being ignored. They may be misidentified, or mistakenly considered severely disabled due to a language issue rather than a cognitive disorder.”

One Minnesota school serves as a good example of how English language specialists and special education teachers can collaborate effectively. Linnea Balderrama, an English teacher at Grey Cloud Elementary, works closely with the ASD (autism spectrum disorder) teacher to develop language learning strategies for each of their students.

“Much of our success comes from knowing the student well,” explains Balderrama. Learning strategies include an initial screening and discussion with case workers, using calming tools like weighted vests, educational videos, music, and picture cards. She adds, “We strongly believe these students can make language gains, and we keep communication open through the year as to what’s working and strategize when we seem to hit a wall in the path of progress.”

The ALTELLA team hopes its new online tools will enable all educators to work together and find the resources they need to serve this special population of students so each individual can reach his or her full potential. 

ALTELLA will mail paper copies of these reports, briefs, and tools to anyone upon request, or they can be easily downloaded here.

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