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Aura Rios Erickson, Shoreline Community College

AuraRiosErickson.jpgWhen instructors and students contact academic advisors about a learning progress concern, advisors might be faced with the difficult task of helping students suspected of having a learning disability. The problem of identifying a disability becomes more complex if students speak English as their second language (ESL).

A learning disability may not be as noticeable in the student’s first language. It is possible that a disability might be masked by the student’s compensatory learning strategies. A student having learning difficulties may insist that she has never had this type of problem before. She may have completed her education in her native country and never needed academic assistance. Shewcraft (2000) noted that sometimes a learning disability does not manifest itself in the learner’s first language “because of the systematic structure or transparent nature of his native language versus English” (Shewcraft, personal communication, June 2000). It is also possible that the student was not able to recognize his or her difficulties because of lack of educational assessment services in his or her country.

Advisors should also be aware of a cultural bias that students might have regarding disabilities. Students from other cultures may have different responses to being labeled as having a learning disability depending on their cultural background. On our campus, the mother of a student with an obvious developmental disability came to an advisor’s office to assure the advisor that nothing was wrong with her son. In fact, the mother indicated that her son had special abilities for healing and helping others. In this instance, the advisor carefully helped dispel prejudices and biases that ESL student and mother had towards people with disabilities.

Advisors, in conjunction with campus disabilities coordinators, should take a careful look at a student’s current study skills, previous educational background, current socio-cultural factors, external problems, attendance, attitude, and personal perception towards the perceived learning problem. When assessing a potential referral, advisors should first ask themselves if the problem the student is facing has persisted over time. Schwarz and Terrill (2000) indicate that s ome of the questions an advisor should consider are:

  • Has the problem resisted normal instruction?
  • Does the learner show a clear pattern of strengths and weaknesses in class or outside of class?
  • Does the problem interfere with a life activity in some significant way?

Other areas an advisor might consider include instructor teaching style versus the student expectations and student current stresses or previous traumas that might cause difficulty in learning. These factors most likely could affect all learning, whereas a learning disability usually affects one area of learning (Adkins, Sample & Birman 1999; Almanza, Singleton & Terrill 1995/96). Depending on this initial assessment, the advisor could recommend that the student take a reduced course load, be selective in the type of courses elected, and have access to tutoring or other support services.

In addition to these issues, ready access to a skilled diagnostician can be a challenge. Few institutions have on-site professionals who screen students and diagnose learning disabilities. In many cases, services are offered off-campus and are expensive; cost might be a barrier for students. Students from different cultures may prefer access to a professional who speaks their language or knows about their culture. If this is the case, finding a skilled professional could be a challenge.

Current assessment instruments used to diagnose potential learning disabilities in ESL students are most often designed for young students. Even though it is not appropriate to use this type of tool with adults, it may be the only option available. In addition, the concepts and language used in assessment tools may have no direct translation in the student’s native language. Schwartz and Terrill (2000) note that the validity of tests translated into the student’s native language can be questionable. The assessment and diagnosis of ESL students with disabilities is relatively a new field. The need for more effective assessment instruments is growing as the immigrant population continues to increase.

At this time, advisors must continue to use a comprehensive approach when thinking about referring ESL students to a licensed psychologist who can provide a learning disability diagnosis. Minnesota’s Learning Disability Association (LDA) has produced a resource guide for instructors serving ESL students with learning difficulties or disabilities entitled “Taking Action.” This guide provides information that advisors might find helpful.

The screening checklist for Adult Learning Disabilities adapted by the LDA in 2002 might be helpful. A brief profile of Learning Disabilities (LD) characteristics might guide advisors in identifying potential learning disabilities. These characteristics include:

  • Previous diagnosis or family history of LD
  • Inconsistent skill profile
  • Knowledgeable in many areas but cannot read or write
  • Seems to know the answer but cannot express it
  • Difficulty learning, remembering or keeping organized

There are no easy solutions to this complex problem; however, advisors can help students by connecting them with the appropriate on and off campus services so that they can achieve their goals.

Aura Rios Erickson
ESL Program Advisor
Shoreline Community College
[email protected]


Adkins, M.A., Sample, B., & Birman, D, (1999), Mental health and the adult ESL refugee: The role of the ESL teacher. ERIC Digest, Washington, D.C: National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education.

Almanza, D., Singleton, K., & Terrill, L., (1995/96). Learning disabilities in adult ESL: Case studies and directions. The Year in Review, 5, 1-6

Schwartz. R. & Terrill, L. (2000). ESL instruction and adults with learning disabilities, ERIC Digest. Retrieved November 28, 2007 from www.ericdigests.org/2001-2/esl.html.

Shrewcraft. (personal communication, June 2000).

Cite this article using APA style as: Rios Erickson, A. (2008, March). Challenges in advising ESL students with learning disabilities. Academic Advising Today, 31(1). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2008 March 31:1


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