Why Do English Learners Struggle With Reading?: Distinguishing Language Acquisition From Learning Disabilities


John J. Hoover, Leonard M. Baca & Janette K. Klingner

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    Dr. Janette K. Klingner


    Janette was a leading researcher, educator, and mentor specializing in the reading education of English learners, with and without disabilities. During her career, she spent ten years as a bilingual special education teacher in California and Florida. She obtained her PhD from the University of Miami where she developed the highly effective reading method for ELs known as collaborative strategic reading (CSR), which is used in many schools nationwide. Among the many grant funded projects that Janette led, the RTI Effectiveness Model for ELLs (REME) and the National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems (NCCRESt) are two that highlight her extensive work in the field. Much of Janette’s research was funded by the US Department of Education and many private organizations. Janette received numerous honors and awards throughout her career, including the AERA—American Educational Research Association–Special Education SIG Distinguished Researcher Award. Janette was past president of the Division for Learning Disabilities in the Council for Exceptional Children, and served as vice president of the International Academy for Research on Learning Disabilities. Most recently, Janette was president-elect of the Council for Exceptional Children. Janette’s publications include over fifteen books, one hundred articles, and numerous book chapters and practitioner briefs, addressing the topics of reading education, special education, ELs, response to intervention, and culturally and linguistically diverse education. She was associate editor for the Journal of Learning Disabilities, on the editorial boards of ten professional journals, and was a past coeditor of the Review of Educational Research. Throughout her career, Janette collaborated with many colleagues in the fields of reading, special education, and culturally and linguistically diverse education. Some of her colleagues share their thoughts about Janette and her contributions to the field.

    Dean Lorrie A. Shepard, University of Colorado Boulder

    I am pleased to add my words of remembrance and admiration for Professor Janette Klingner’s many significant professional contributions. Her scholarship was prolific, her commitment to addressing inequities in educational systems unwavering, but still you would not have the whole picture if you did not understand how smart and insightful she was about particularizing supports for learning at the same time that she attended to the practical realities of classrooms, the professional development needs of teachers, and the demands for rigorous research designs. I commend this book to you, knowing Janette’s intentions “to engage all students and provide the support that enables culturally and linguistically diverse students and students identified as having disabilities to thrive and show their strengths.”

    Sharon Vaughn, University of Texas at Austin

    Janette Klingner’s passion for students with disabilities who were also English language learners influenced her thinking, writing, actions, and those of others. She launched a series of studies more than 25 years ago that influences research and practice today and the foreseeable future. Janette’s generosity in sharing what she knew, interest in including as many folks as she could in whatever problem she was tackling, and commitment to conducting high quality research that mattered to practicing professionals is legend. There simply was no issue related to promoting effective outcomes for students who were English language learners that she would not take on. Whether it was policy development, multi-cultural education, research methodology, syntheses, effective interventions, or school reform. Progress related to educational reform for English language learners will be built on her influential work.

    Beth Harry, University of Miami

    Janette Klingner’s unique contribution to the field of special education was the bringing together of three key strands related to equity in education: Learning disability, language, and racial/socioeconomic bias. Starting off as a specialist in reading issues facing bilingual learners, Janette bravely confronted the myriad ways in which this apparently simple binary was inextricably bound to the confounding of racial, socioeconomic, and language differences.

    Diane Haager, California State University, Los Angeles

    What is remarkable and unique about Janette Klingner’s contribution to education is how fluidly she melded multiple areas of expertise—cultural and linguistic diversity, special education, and reading instruction—into a singular defining research identity. Something that she accomplished with astonishing grace is helping diverse communities of educators who often hold tightly to divergent philosophies and beliefs to see value in opposing views. She was always pushing against boundaries to help us to understand complex educational problems, holding firm to her belief that complex problems would require complex solutions. It was more than a “can’t we all just get along” way of being. To Janette, looking at situations and problems from multiple perspectives, listening closely to diverse points of view, and persisting until there was consensus, was the only way to truly impact classrooms and schools. Janette was a brilliant researcher and scholar. Her collective work has led to a deeper, richer understanding of the challenges of meeting the needs of diverse populations in cumbersome educational systems.

    Nonie Lesaux, Harvard Graduate School of Education

    It was inevitable that Janette and I would cross paths, as two scholars deeply committed to increasing opportunities-to-learn for children whose home language(s) include those other than English—a population of children commonly referred to as English learners (ELs). But I was even luckier than that; I had the privilege of collaborating with Janette on some key projects. Most recently, Janette and I designed guidance, resources, and professional development modules to support educators as they shifted their instruction and assessment practices to fit the Response to Intervention (RtI) approach, using RtI as a platform for increasing learning outcomes for ELs. I hold these memories dear, and am still engaged in initiatives to support the implementation of RtI in linguistically diverse settings, continuing to cultivate the progress toward equity that Janette championed. It is through her example that I continue to facilitate and encourage action-oriented conversations about classroom- and school-level models of prevention to meet the needs of today’s diverse populations of learners.

    Julie Esparza Brown, Portland State University

    Dr. Janette Klingner has touched the lives of teachers, scholars, and especially the students in our schools, most notably English learners and students in special education, who have benefited from her teaching, research, and service to the community. Her academic and scholarly accomplishments in the fields of literacy, English Learners and special education are without question. Yet, I believe her generosity of time and heart is equally profound. As a Latina and emerging scholar with few role models and little guidance in navigating an academic career, I deeply valued Janette’s mentorship. Not only did she make an impact with her own research, but there are many others like me... [who found that her] guidance and impact on our scholarship have been invaluable.

    John J. Hoover, University of Colorado Boulder

    Leonard M. Baca, University of Colorado Boulder

    Janette was a scholar, colleague, and friend and will be missed by many. In the contents of the second edition of this book her knowledge and expertise prevail, continuing her efforts to inform, educate and prepare high quality educators in the teaching of reading to culturally and linguistically diverse learners, with or without disabilities.


    We have each devoted our forty-plus-year careers to trying to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for culturally and linguistically diverse students, especially English learners with or without disabilities. In our years of work as classroom teachers and as professors preparing educators, we have noticed that one of the most challenging aspects of working with English learners is determining why they might be underachieving, particularly in reading. In some cases, it is that they are not being taught in environments conducive to learning or with instructional practices that are appropriate for meeting their needs. Perhaps they are struggling with English language acquisition. Or they might truly have learning disabilities. In fact, all of the above might be contributing to English learners’ slow progress.

    The first step in providing students with support that is well matched to their needs is determining the possible reasons for their difficulties. Thus, the purpose of this book is to help practitioners distinguish between learning disabilities and other possible explanations for English learners’ struggles in school. We provide readers with a wealth of information about different aspects of this important educational challenge. It is our hope that as teachers and other support personnel read through the different chapters of this book, they reflect on their own practices, discuss the content of the book with colleagues, and apply what they are learning with their students. We envision that the reader will become more confident and competent in determining why English learners might be struggling with reading.


    We wish to acknowledge that this book is written for all the students we had the privilege of teaching who were English learners and labeled as having learning disabilities: Elvia, Jorge, Francisco, Azucena, Veronica, Richard, and Yulexis—to name only a few. Some of these students had learning disabilities, but many did not. It was their challenges and successes, their frustrations and their joys, that planted the seeds for this book so many years ago.

    This book was sponsored by the National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems (NCCRESt). There are many individuals along the way who helped with its construction whose contributions we would like to acknowledge. First, we wish to thank Dr. Grace Zamora Durán. It was her expert guidance as the project officer for NCCRESt that provided the impetus for this work. Secondly, we would like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of Dr. Alfredo Artiles, co-principal investigator for NCCRESt, whose conceptual contributions helped to frame our approach to the book. Next, we would like to thank the authors who contributed to different book chapters and helped make the book a reality: Michael J. Orosco, Laura Méndez Barletta, Amy Boelé, and Todd Fletcher, as well as Carmen de Onís, Diana Geisler, and Estella Almanza de Schonewise. Finally, we would like to show our appreciation for the researchers who coauthored papers presented at NCCRESt’s National Research Conference, “English Language Learners Struggling to Learn: Emergent Research on Linguistic Differences and Learning Disabilities,” November 18–19, 2004: Jamal Abedi, Alfredo Artiles, Manuel Barrera, Judith Bernhard, Paul Cirino, Jim Cummins, Kathy Escamilla, Richard Figueroa, Todd Fletcher, Margaret Gallego, Eugene Garcia, Michael Gerber, Diane Haager, Beth Harry, Nonie Lesaux, Sylvia Linan-Thompson, Jeff MacSwan, Laura Méndez Barletta, Patricia Newsome, Alba Ortiz, Kathryn Prater, Elba Reyes, Phyllis Robertson, Robert Rueda, Richard Ruiz, Guillermo Solano Flores, Sharon Vaughn, Cheryl Wilkinson, Michelle Windmueller, and Grace Zamora-Durán. Their research served as the foundation for the chapters in this book.

    This second edition contains all the excellent material presented in the first edition and builds on those contributions and works of the educational leaders identified above. This second edition expands upon the works that served as the foundation for the first edition by bringing updated research and contemporary insights to the education of ELs who struggle with reading. Finally, we wish to especially acknowledge our late colleague, Dr. Janette Klingner, for her insightful and leading-edge works that masterfully framed Why Do English Learners Struggle With Reading? Her contributions live on in this second edition.

    Publisher’s Acknowledgments

    Corwin would also like to thank the following for their professional contributions to the book:

    Juliana Arazi

    ESL Teacher

    Urbana School District 116

    Urbana, IL

    James Becker

    ESL Teacher

    Saint Paul Public Schools

    Saint Paul, MN

    Anne Beveridge

    Assistant Head and Primary Years Program Coordinator (Junior School)

    Branksome Hall

    Toronto, ON

    Christine Engel

    ESL Teacher

    Webster Stanley Elementary

    Oshkosh, WI

    Christine B. Rodriguez

    Elementary School Teacher

    Phoenix Elementary School District

    Phoenix, AZ

    About the Authors

    Janette K. Klingner See Dedication Page

    John J. Hoover is associate professor of research at the University of Colorado Boulder and a former K–12 special educator, teaching diverse students representing multiple languages and cultures in western, southwestern, and midwestern states. He earned a BA in elementary and special education (intellectual disabilities), an MA in learning disabilities and emotional disorders with an emphasis in reading, and a PhD in curriculum specializing in special education. His research agenda for the past two decades has focused on the topic of culturally and linguistically responsive special education referral and assessment of English language and other diverse learners. He is currently principal investigator/PI on three, multiyear grant-funded projects addressing ELs and multi-tiered supports, special education referral and assessment of culturally and linguistically diverse learners, and graduate-level teacher preparation for teaching English language and other diverse learners with and without disabilities. Select recent or in-development coauthored/coedited books include: IEPs for ELLs, and Other Diverse Learners (in development, Corwin); Linking Assessment to Instruction: Selecting Reading, Writing and Mathematics Interventions (Pearson); Differentiating Learning Differences From Learning and Behavioral Disabilities: Teaching Diverse Learners Through Multi-Tiered Response to Intervention (Allyn & Bacon); and Methods for Teaching Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Exceptional Learners (Pearson Merrill). He also is coauthor of a nationally normed reading test, Early Reading Assessment (Pro-Ed), and of a research-based educator self-assessment and professional development tool, Core ESL Instructional Practices (CEIP) Guide. Recent refereed journal publications include “Increasing Usage of ESL Instructional Practices in a Rural County Elementary School,” Rural Educator (in press); “Culturally Responsive Special Education Referrals of English Learners in One Rural County School District: Pilot Project,” Rural Special Education Quarterly (2015), for which he was awarded the 2015 Research Article of the Year Award by the American Council on Rural Special Education (ACRES), and “Reducing Unnecessary Referrals: Guidelines for Teachers of Diverse Learners,” Teaching Exceptional Children (2012).

    Leonard M. Baca is professor emeritus at the University of Colorado Boulder. He earned an EdD from the University of Northern Colorado and has been a professor of education at the University of Colorado Boulder since 1973. He has taught courses in bilingual and bilingual special education and served as the program chair. Professor Baca is founder and executive director of the BUENO Center for Multicultural Education where he has directed and managed millions of dollars in grant-funded projects promoting the education of ELs and students with disabilities. He is author or coauthor of numerous publications dealing with English learners with and without disabilities, including the Bilingual Special Education Interface (Merrill) and Methods for Teaching Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Exceptional Learners (Pearson).

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