Many students in special education struggle with language. Those diagnosed with special needs who are also English language learners (ELLs) have specific, unique needs. These dually classified learners are identified with a disability and are eligible for both special education and English as a second language or bilingual services. As teachers, we are often underprepared to work with this population in our classrooms.
The U.S. Department of Education estimated in 2015 that 184,000 of the nation’s 2.9 million students enrolled in programs for ELLs had disabilities. Only 63 percent of ELLs graduate from high school, compared to the national rate of 82 percent. The discrepancy is most likely even larger for students who are dually classified, though getting exact numbers is difficult. Providing these students with the support they may need in our classrooms is a real challenge for teachers.
Problem-Based Enhanced Language Learning
To help support these learners, a new instructional model called Problem-Based Enhanced Language Learning (PBELL) was developed by the iTeachELLs team at Arizona State University. I’m the project director of iTeachELLs, and we had heard from graduating teachers that they needed help—we were not fully preparing them to work with this population.
The PBELL model we developed combines elements of problem-based learning with the key principles of English language learning methods. PBELL is designed to raise student achievement through integration of instructional approaches in lessons that support acquisition of both content and language skills.
In PBELL experiences, a student utilizes language collaboratively in order to access prior knowledge, research new topics, brainstorm and discuss potential solutions, and present new findings to an audience. In a classroom using PBELL, all language is considered an asset in supporting rigorous learning opportunities.
A PBELL lesson has four basic components:
- Meaningful problem development: Students work collaboratively to solve a meaningful problem.
- Language and content in tandem: To help students master both instructional content and language, we must be intentional.
- Assessment of content and language: We need to assess both the instructional content and the acquisition and use of language.
- Specific support and strategies: Our lessons must include scaffolds and strategies that provide access to both the language and the content.
These lessons should be fun and student driven—involving students is key. There are plenty of free example lessons from experts in the field as well as teacher-created lessons available for use and adaptation on the iTeachELLs website. For a deeper look at these elements, take a look at the suite of short modules, complete with classroom footage.
Strategies for Working With Dually Classified Learners
Within PBELL lessons, teachers implement specific strategies to allow further access to content and provide strategic support on an individual basis.
Collaboration: Students are placed together in the inquiry process to support one another’s learning. This can include small groups, pairs, or partners intentionally grouped together based on their primary language. Students may read and gather information together or pair up after the inquiry process to share the new learning they have discovered.
Graphic organization of learning: Charts, tables, or graphic organizers are used to help students understand new ideas and organize their new learning.
During the inquiry phase, for example, students may use a KWL (Know, Want to Know, Learn) graphic organizer to help process their new learning. They can brainstorm what they already know about a topic related to the meaningful problem, and then as a class they may form questions to represent what they want to know. These questions then drive the inquiry experience, and students complete the graphic organizer by noting the new learning they discover related to those questions.
Sensory strategies: Manipulatives, visuals, video, and real-world objects are used throughout the inquiry process to ensure that all students have access to new learning. Teachers can bring in real-world items to support student learning and understanding.
We know that teachers have heavy workloads and that adding new approaches is often time-consuming and challenging. If you don’t have time to undertake a large PBELL project right now, it is possible to start small. We’ve found two basic components of lesson planning that can have immediate impact on student success: Ground learning in real-life, relevant experiences of the students, and recognize that language is a tool that needs to be specifically taught and modeled in all learning.
Starting with these small steps, we can help our dually classified learners make progress.