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UH College of Education Professor Earns Grant to Study Language Struggles Vs. Learning Disabilities

Miao Li
Assistant Professor Miao Li, whose native language is Mandarin Chinese, said she’s driven to understand how others learn English.

Posted November 27, 2018 – For students who didn’t grow up speaking English, it’s natural to struggle while learning the language. Yet, for their teachers, it can be challenging to differentiate when a student has a learning disability or is just going through the typical process of acquiring a second language.

Miao Li, an assistant professor at the University of Houston College of Education, is working to alleviate that challenge. Thanks to a recent grant, Li is researching whether the response-to-intervention model – a tiered approach to evaluating and helping students – can effectively distinguish English Language Learners with learning disabilities from those without.

Her project involves designing an assessment and intervention to help teachers identify the two groups, focusing on phonetic distinctions. If English Language Learners can tell the difference in speech sounds and minimal pairs such as “cat” and “bat,” they may not have a learning disability, she said. “And we can help these children to develop the new language as they grow.”

The study is backed by a $46,229 grant from the William T. Grant Family Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that supports research focused on improving the lives of youth.

“Dr. Li brings a unique expertise to our department that blends bilingual education, language and literacy, and special education, and I am pleased that funders also recognize the value of supporting this work,” said Jen Chauvot, chair of the College’s Department of Curriculum & Instruction.

In a general education classroom, about 10 to 15 percent of students are at risk of having a learning disability, according to Li. Yet some teachers wait a year or two to assess whether or not an English Language Learner has a learning disability. Waiting can put students with a genuine disability behind in receiving interventions that can help, while those struggling to learn a new language can be referred incorrectly to special education, Li said.

“From a social or emotional perspective, ELLs who don’t have a learning disability but are just in the second-language acquisition process start to wonder if something is wrong with them when you give them the label of special education,” Li said.

Growing up speaking Mandarin Chinese, Li said she’s driven to understand how others learn English.

“We should consider early education and how important it is for young children. If we can help them while they’re young, it could help them develop the new language as they get older,” she said.

Margaret Hale, associate chair of the Department of Curriculum & Instruction, said Li’s work aligns with the College’s focus on an ensuring all students receive a high-quality education

“I believe that Dr. Li’s research will help students while also working with the COE’s strategic plan mission of eradicating educational disparities in second language learners,” Hale said.

By Alberto Huichapa