Research on bilingual and multilingual learning in the United States has not kept pace with the increasing growth of our culturally and linguistically diverse population. Nearly one in five Americans speaks a language other than English at home, and almost 45 percent of U.S. teachers have at least one student with limited English proficiency in their classrooms. Schools are striving to meet the mandate of leaving no child behind, despite the challenges associated with teaching students from multiple cultural, linguistic, and experiential backgrounds, including those who are new to the English language, or English language learners (ELL). Additionally, there is the responsibility of determining whether a student's academic difficulties stem from learning a second language or from the presence of a learning disability, or from both. There is widespread anecdotal evidence suggesting that ELLs may be either bypassed for consideration as a child with a disability because teachers assume the child is not achieving solely because of his or her language difference, or over-represented on special education rosters due to inappropriate placement based upon inaccurate measures and ill-conceived procedures.
In response to these concerns, three federal agencies jointly organized a National Symposium on Learning Disabilities in English Language Learners, held Oct. 14-15, 2003, in Washington, D.C. The goal of this symposium was to determine how best to apply knowledge about identifying and assessing learning disabilities in native English-speaking students to the identification and assessment of learning disabilities in ELLs. In addition, symposium participants discussed ways to distinguish between actual learning disabilities and the challenges associated with learning a new language. Researchers, practitioners, and policymakers from around the United States, Canada, Mexico, and the United Kingdom joined forces to shape a research agenda that promotes evidence-based practices; is germane to educators; supports the development of valid screening and assessment instruments; and incorporates relevant neurological, cognitive, and linguistic factors.