Bilingual Special Education

An article on how to properly combine special education and bilingual education.

Bilingual Special Education

ERIC EC Digest #E496, Authors: Leonard M. Baca and Hermes T. Cervantes ED333618, 1991

How Many Students Are Both Disabled and Bilingual?

Based on Census and Immigration and Naturalization Servicesrecords, it is estimated that there are 79 million school-age languageminority children in the United States. This bilingual population isdistributed throughout the United States with heavier concentrationsin the southwest and northeast. The highest concentration is in thelarge urban areas.

Considering the overall population with limited English proficiency(LEP) in the United States, a critical question for bilingual specialeducators is how many of these students also have disabilities.According to the U.S. Office of Special Education, an estimated948,000 children may be both linguistically different and havedisabilities – a substantial population who could benefit frombilingual special education services.

Although overrepresentation is an issue in some school districts, anew problem of underrepresentation has also emerged in some areas because many LEP students with disabilitiesare being placed in bilingual education as an alternative to specialeducation.

How Can Special Education and Bilingual Education Be Combined?

Developers of bilingual special education programs need to weigh threefactors for each student:

  • degree of disability
  • level of language proficiency in both English and the primary language
  • intellectualcapacity
The student's placement on each of these three continuumswill determine the nature of instruction and the educationalplacement.

Students' degree of disability must be considered for program design,along with their intellectual capacities and their proficiencies in English and their other languages. For example, astudent of average intelligence who has a high level of languageproficiency in Spanish, a minimal level of ability in English, andlimited visual acuity will require curricular services and placementdifferent from those of a student who is linguistically limited inboth languages, exhibits lower intellectual performance, and isseverely language delayed.

What Variables Should Influence Placement Decisions?

Program placement should be the best fit between the student's needsand the available resources. Placement decisions for the bilingualexceptional student should reflect the type and nature of instructionto be provided, the language of instruction, the conveyor ofinstruction, the duration of instruction, and the student's learningneeds and style. The following special education variables andbilingual factors should be addressed in identifying placement:

  • Student's age.
  • Type and degree of impairment or disability.
  • Age at which disability occurred.
  • Level of language involvement because of the disability.
  • Level of academic achievement.
  • Entry level language skills (upon entering school).
  • Measured intellectual ability.
  • Method and language used in measuring academic achievement andintellectual ability.
  • Level of adaptive behavior.
  • Time spent in United States.
  • Current cultural home setting.
  • Social maturity.
  • Level of language proficiency in English and other language.
  • Amount and type of language input received in the home environment.
  • Speech and language capabilities in both languages.
  • Presence of multiple handicaps.
  • Ambulation or mobility.
  • Success in past and present placements.
  • Wishes of students and parents.

What Is Needed to Get Started?

Operationalizing bilingual special education requires the creation ofan instructional social system that involves active teaching ofcognitive skills and includes the development of language skills whilefocusing on the acquisition of English. All instruction is prescribedin a manner that accommodates and remediates the student'sexceptionality. Students must understand the directions and the natureof the tasks. Instruction must be provided within a relevant culturalcontext so that expectations can be understood by the student. Becauselanguage is the primary conveyor of instruction, the student'sstronger language must be employed.

Based on the assumption that students learn best in their preferredlanguage, bilingual special education is operationalized at each locallevel with each individual student in mind. The common thread is toprovide for all students educational experiences that develop lifelonglearning skills.

What Are the Basic Elements of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) forThese Children?

IEPs for exceptional bilingual students should include the followingelements:

  1. The child's current educational status, including all serviceprograms the child is receiving.
  2. Goals, including adaptation to acculturation and growth in both thefirst and second language. The goals must be realistic in regard tothe time necessary; years could be involved.
  3. The sequence of short-term instructional objectives leading up toeach goal.
  4. A list of instructional and service requirements including abalance between the first and second language, as well as delineationof who will assist with acculturation needs.
  5. An indication of how much and what aspects of the program will bein the mainstream.
  6. The program's duration.
  7. IEP's realistic criteria and a schedule for evaluation of the IEP'seffectiveness.
  8. A statement of the role of the parents.
  9. Specification of changes to be made in the physical, social, and instructional realms, including the first and second languages and cross-cultural adaptation.

What Are the Steps in Developing a Comprehensive Curriculum?

The four major partners in bilingual special education curriculumdevelopment are the parents, the mainstream teacher, the bilingualteacher, and the special education teacher. The following steps shouldbe undertaken by this team:

  1. Meet as a team to begin the planning process. Outline planningsteps.
  2. Become familiar with the culture and language background of thechild.
  3. Become familiar with the special learning style and education needsof the child.
  4. Prepare an individual instructional plan with short- and long-termgoals (in some cases this may be an IEP).
  5. Develop individualized lessons and materials appropriate to thechild's exceptionality.
  6. Modify individualized lessons and materials using a culturalscreen and sensitivity.
  7. Refer to resource people for assistance and cooperation ininstruction; coordinate services.
  8. Evaluate the child's ongoing progress and develop a new individualplan (IEP), materials, and so forth, as needed.
  9. Start the cycle over.

What Should Be Considered in Selecting Materials for Bilingual ExceptionalChildren?

The following guidelines represent some of the many considerationsteachers should bear in mind when evaluating, selecting, adapting, ordeveloping materials:

  1. Know the specific language abilities of each student.
  2. Include appropriate cultural experiences in material adapted ordeveloped.
  3. Ensure that material progresses at a rate commensurate with studentneeds and abilities.
  4. Document the success of selected materials.
  5. Adapt only specific materials requiring modifications, and do notattempt to change too much at one time.
  6. Try out different materials and adaptations until an appropriateeducation for each student is achieved.
  7. Strategically implement materials adaptations to ensure smoothtransitions into the new materials.
  8. Follow some consistent format or guide when evaluating materials.
  9. Be knowledgeable about particular cultures and heritages and theircompatibility with selected materials.
  10. Follow a well-developed process for evaluating the success of adapted or developed materials as the individual language and cultural needs of students are addressed.

How Can Materials Be Adapted?

Thefollowing list is not designed to be all inclusive; variations may berequired in order to meet individual needs.

  • Adjust the method of presentation or content.
  • Develop supplemental material.
  • Tape-record directions for the material.
  • Provide alternatives for responding to questions.
  • Rewrite brief sections to lower the reading level.
  • Outline the material for the student before reading a selection.
  • Reduce the number of pages or items on a page to be completed by thestudent.
  • Break tasks into smaller subtasks.
  • Provide additional practice to ensure mastery.
  • Substitute a similar, less complex task for a particular assignment.
  • Develop simple study guides to complement required materials.


Baca, L. M., & Cervantes H. T. (Eds.). (1989). The bilingual special education interface(2nd ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Baca, L. M., & Payon, R. M. (1989). Development of the bilingualspecial education interface. In L. M. Baca & H. T. Cervantes (Eds.),The bilingual special education interface (pp. 79-99). Columbus, OH:Merrill.

Collier, C. (1989). Mainstreaming and bilingual exceptional children.In L. M. Baca & H. T. Cervantes (Eds.), The bilingual specialeducation interface (pp. 257-290). Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Collier, C., & Kalk, M.(1989). Bilingual special education curriculumdevelopment. In L. M. Baca & H. T. Cervantes (Eds.), The bilingualspecial education interface (pp. 205-229). Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Harris, W. J., & Shultz, P. N. B. (1986). The special educationresource program: Rationale and implementation. Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Hoover, J. J., & Collier, C. (1989). Methods and materials forbilingual special education. In L. M. Baca & H. T. Cervantes (Eds.),The bilingual special education interface (pp. 231-255). Columbus, OH:Merrill.

Lewis, R. B., & Doorlag, D. H. (1987). Teaching special students inthe mainstream. Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Mandell, C. J., & Gold, V. (1984). Teaching handicapped students. St.Paul, MN: West.

Ovando, C., & Collier, V. (1985). Bilingual and ESL classrooms: Teaching in multicultural contexts. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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