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English Language Learner Issues Part 1: How to Determine When Your Student Needs a Bilingual Evaluation

“Lorena” is a fourth grader who is struggling in Reading Comprehension and Language Arts. She was born in the US and has been in the US school system since Kindergarten, but her teacher notes that she has difficulty finding words when answering questions in class. Lorena uses very simple sentence structures in her writing and has limited vocabulary skills. Her teacher reaches out to you with a request for a speech and language screening. As an independent telepractitioner with PresenceLearning, how should you proceed?

  1. Follow the school’s policy. Whenever you receive a referral, you should first make sure to follow the school’s protocol for processing the referral. Most schools have a Student Study Team or similar process where possible Special Education referrals are brought up for discussion by the group. Some schools prefer to have a full psychoeducational evaluation completed when the student is having language difficulties while students with speech sound difficulties may be referred for speech/language evaluations only.
  2. Review of Records. Whenever you receive a referral, you should do a thorough review of records. Some schools have this information in the student’s cumulative file while others have the data stored electronically. You should always verify the student’s primary language. Primary language refers to the language that was learned first by the student. If the student’s primary language is English, you can proceed to complete the evaluation in English only. If the student’s primary language is in another language then you will need to gather some more data.
  3. Fluent English Speaker vs. English Language Learner. Whenever a student registers in the school system with a primary language other than English, the school will complete English language proficiency testing to determine when the student becomes a completely Fluent English speaker. Every state and school district has their own system of tracking this progress. The first question to ask is: Is this student considered an English Language Learner or has the student been redesignated as a Fluent English speaker?
  4. English Language Learner = Bilingual Assessment. If the student is designated as an English Language Learner, he or she should automatically be referred for a bilingual assessment. According to IDEA law, the assessment and the IEP should address the primary language when determining eligibility for special education. Speech and language services are warranted only when it is determined that the student has a speech/language disorder that is not the result of speaking English as a second language. Language differences should be addressed through language enrichment and English Language Development programs.
  5. What is a Fluent English Speaker? In some instances, students are designated as Fluent English speakers because they achieve a passing score in the areas of Listening and Speaking, but they score below average on their Reading and Writing proficiency tests. What do you do in those instances? It is not unusual for a student to achieve fluency in conversational language (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills, or BICS) within 1-3 years of learning English. Achieving competency in academic language (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency, or CALP) is a longer and more complex process. This level of language learning is essential for students to succeed in school. It is not unusual for students to take 5-7 years to achieve this type of academic fluency for language. If the student is redesignated as an English speaker, then it is legally defensible to complete the assessment in English only. However, interpret the results with caution when writing the report and be sure to have your PresenceLearning Senior Clinical Consultant (SCC) or Lead Clinician review this report before submitting it to the school.

In summary, there are times when it is crucial to refer for bilingual assessments. Whenever the student is designated as an English Language Learner, you will need to address the primary language in your assessment to thoroughly justify that a student’s language issues are the result of a language disorder or a language difference. You would only recommend speech and language services when it is determined that a student’s speech and language difficulties are the result of a disorder. In other words, similar error patterns in the areas of syntax, semantics, morphology, and pragmatics would be noted in both the primary language as well as English. For more guidance on determining whether a student needs to be referred for bilingual assessment, please refer to PresenceLearning Assessment Training resources or ask your SCC and/or Lead Clinician for some resources.

In the coming months, we will dive further into this topic and discuss how to gather information for a bilingual assessment and how to work with an interpreter.

Karin H. Koukeyan, MS, CCC-SLP, is a Senior Clinical Consultant with PresenceLearning.

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