May 2023: Long-term English Learners: Untangling Language Acquisition and Learning Disabilities

Rhinehart, L. V., Bailey, A. L., & Haager, D. (2022). Long-term English learners: Untangling language acquisition and learning disabilities. Contemporary School Psychology.

Summary by Jeremy Miciak, Ph.D.

Overview and Context

In recent years, there have been increasing calls to recognize the diversity of English learners (ELs) in U.S. schools (for example, see Thompson and colleague’s discussion of expanded EL categories). ELs are typically defined as students who speak a language other than English at home and who have not yet developed full English proficiency. The EL label is traditionally meant to be a temporary label, although there is recognized value in tracking outcomes for students who have been reclassified as English proficient, often referred to as “Ever ELs.” However, even among current ELs, there exists significant heterogeneity with regard to the opportunities they have had to learn English and their instructional needs. To illustrate, the umbrella term EL includes the following:

  1. A first-grade student meeting all reading and language benchmarks.
  2. A ninth-grade immigrant student enrolled for their first year in a U.S. school.
  3. A fourth-grade student with well-developed English language skills on the cusp of reclassification.
  4. An 11th-grade student who enrolled in a U.S. school in kindergarten but has never met academic and language benchmarks necessary to be reclassified as English proficient.

The educational needs of these four students are very different and highlight the complexity obscured by using EL as an umbrella term. Among identifiable subgroups of ELs, our team of researchers at the Texas Center for Learning Disabilities has taken a special interest in students like the fourth example, who are often referred to as long-term ELs. This label reflects the longer-than-expected time to achieve academic and language benchmarks necessary for reclassification. These observed learning difficulties often result from underlying learning disabilities, the diagnosis of which is complicated by the second language acquisition process.

Purpose and Methods

Rhinehart and colleagues (2022) sought to understand better the educational needs of long-term ELs, with a long-term goal of parsing difficulties with language acquisition from learning disabilities. This study utilized data from a large sample (N = 560) of long-term ELs collected from a charter school organization in California. Importantly, unlike previous studies of long-term ELs, Rhinehart and colleagues did not exclude students identified with learning disabilities, as many long-term ELs may have been identified as learning disabled.

The goals of this study were to understand the following:

  1. The demographic characteristics of long-term ELs
  2. The academic and language profiles of long-term ELs with and without learning disabilities
  3. How manipulating performance cut-points and criteria for English proficiency would change reclassification outcomes for long-term ELs

The study primarily utilized demographics information and performance on the California English Language Development Test (CELDT) to investigate these questions. The outcomes are primarily descriptive, as the researchers’ purpose was to describe this population and their English language proficiency.


Unsurprisingly, given the demographics of the study sample and the EL population in California, nearly all long-term ELs were Latinx. Males were more likely to be long-term ELs (61%). Notably, a large percentage of long-term ELs were identified for special education (29%), with most identified as learning disabled or speech and language impaired (86%).

When considering their performance in academic and language domains, long-term ELs performed best in the Listening and Speaking domains. Their performance was lower in Reading and Writing. Long-term ELs in special education demonstrated significant performance deficits in Reading.

Finally, Rhinehart and colleagues considered whether changing the performance benchmarks for reclassification as English proficient would affect reclassification outcomes. For example, omitting performance benchmarks for reading and writing and relying only on listening and speaking performance would allow almost 80% of students to reclassify as English proficient. Further, among those who would not meet reclassification criteria, over half had been previously identified for special education.

Discussion and Implications

The results of this study highlight several important considerations for research and policy for ELs. By focusing on the unique profiles of long-term ELs, Rhinehart and colleagues force us to consider fully the unique educational needs of different subgroups of ELs. These groups should be studied at a more granular level, allowing us to move away from blanket recommendations for “ELs” and towards recommendations tailored to each student’s unique needs. As Rhinehart and colleagues demonstrate, these needs may vary by proficiency domain, as well.

For example, the academic progress of long-term ELs appears to be stymied not by their English listening and speaking but instead by their English reading and writing. This finding is perhaps unsurprising as the academic demands of reading and writing tasks in secondary grades are challenging for many monolingual English speakers, as well. Therefore, supporting the reading and writing development of long-term ELs who struggle in reading may require reading interventions similar to their English proficient peers.

Fortunately, adolescent struggling readers are the subject of significant research, best summarized in a recent practice guide published by the Institute of Education Sciences that describes intervention approaches for adolescent struggling readers. In recognition of the multiple deficits that most adolescent struggling readers exhibit, multi-component interventions are recommended, including:

  1. Build students’ decoding skills so they can read complex multi-syllabic words.
  2. Provide purposeful fluency-building activities to help students read effortlessly.
  3. Use routinely a set of comprehension-building practices to help students make sense of the text.
  4. Provide students opportunities to practice making sense of challenging text that will expose them to complex ideas and information.

Long-term ELs will require similar interventions, whether they occur in the context of special education, ESL services, or non-categorical reading interventions. These interventions should not be viewed as short-term fixes. The reading and language deficits exhibited by adolescent struggling readers are not quickly or easily remediated.

High quality general education curriculum that builds knowledge and language across content areas is also critical for long-term ELs. Examples of knowledge-building content instruction can be found at the Center for the Success of English Learners (CSEL) and Promoting Adolescents’ Comprehension of Text (PACT).

Additionally, the results of Rhinehart and colleagues’ study highlight the inherent challenges of service delivery systems and educational classifications that rely on parsing issues related to language acquisition and learning difficulties. Language is an all-encompassing, amorphous construct. Learning difficulties due to second language acquisition and those due to an underlying learning disability often present similarly. However, there is evidence that students who go on to become long-term ELs, with and without identified disabilities, display disparities in foundational reading skills, including phonological awareness. Careful attention to early predictors of later reading disability is therefore warranted. Rhinehart et al. recommend assessing students in both their native language and English to better allow appropriate early identification so students can receive early reading intervention that may improve long-run reading outcomes.