Evaluating Dual Language Learners

November 17, 2015, The IRIS Center

Patsy Pierce, a Consultant for the National Center on Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness, shares her expertise on evaluating dual language learners, with special attention paid to the importance of determining the difference between a language delay and a language difference (time: 14:14).

Questions asked of Patsy Pierce in this audio:

  1. Dr. Pierce, what are some important strategies that teachers can use to support young DLLs with disabilities?
  2. What are some unique issues that educators need to consider when screening and evaluating young dual language learners? Additionally, how can evaluators distinguish between a disability and a language difference?

Patsy Pierce, PhD
Patsy Pierce, PhD
National Center on Cultural
and Linguistic Responsiveness

Transcript: Patsy Pierce, PhD

Narrator: This interview is brought to you by the IRIS Center, a national center funded by the Office of Special Education Programs.

Dr. Pierce, what are some important strategies that teachers can use to support young DLLs with disabilities?

Dr. Pierce: I think the first strategy they need to remember is they need to have strong language models. So whatever language the teacher speaks best, she should communicate with the children in that language. Perhaps there are other adults in the room at different times, and perhaps they speak a different language with greater strength, so they could speak to the children in that language. Children, including children with language and learning disabilities, can learn more than one language. It’s a strength to be able to have those models of the different language. The research is pointing to it’s not effective in most instances to do simultaneous translation. So we don’t read a sentence in a book in Spanish and then turn around and interpret it in English, or vice versa. It can actually be confusing to dual language learners.

Young children, they’re developing their home language at the same time they’re developing English or second language. So the evidence right now is pointing to if you do have the resources to do a dual language program that you offer the dominant language part of the day in the classroom, and then English or whatever the second language is at a different time in the classroom. And you’re not repeating things. You’re just using that language for the language of instruction. And when any adult or peer is speaking in a language other than the dominant language that the child has learned thus far—using visual cues, pictures, objects, pantomime, anything to help the child to be able to follow the directions and make that connection with that word and with what that word means or what that phrase means—giving the children ample opportunities to practice and use those words in context is a great way for children to develop their vocabulary and language skills.

Having cultural artifacts around the classroom, having some things labeled in the different languages of the classroom, but usually those are just going to be the things that you’re really going to refer to like the labeling of a certain play center that could be in the different languages, because that would be a center or source of linguistic input that would be used on a daily basis. You wouldn’t want to overwhelm children by having everything labeled in both English and all the languages that are present. You just would never really use all those labels, and it could be overwhelming to some children. The main thing is being able to be a good language model and use all of the techniques that we use for helping any child to learn language with expanding on what they say and asking different types of questions and waiting long enough for the child to process. We got to wait a little bit longer for dual language learners and especially if they do have a disability, because it will take them longer to process in their different languages and respond in their own language or in their second language. Using a lot of wait time would be a good strategy for teachers working with dual language learners.

Narrator:: What are some unique issues that educators need to consider when screening and evaluating young dual language learners? Additionally, how can evaluators distinguish between a disability and a language difference?

Dr. Pierce: The first thing that we all need to remember is that there are virtually no valid screening or assessment instruments for children who are speaking a language other than English. There have been a few developed for children who are Spanish speaking, but even with those assessments and screening instruments we have to ensure that we are addressing the different dialectical needs of people from different places around the world that speak Spanish. An assessment, a screening instrument, or an evaluation tool that has not been normed specifically on a population really cannot be used to determine whether or not a child has a disability, because it’s not valid, and it’s not giving the appropriate information. So instead of relying on our typical standardized screening instruments and assessment instruments, we really need to use a multiple assessment process and have multiple informants to look at the whole child over time. Once we talk with family members, teachers do observations. We have documentation of children and their interactions and their play and their work over time then we might be able to put together a more realistic picture of whether or not to make a referral for an in-depth evaluation to determine if there is actually a disability.

The same would be true for the evaluators. That is just going to have to be a more authentic assessment approach where different people, especially family members, are all used to help to determine if there is some sort of disability or delay. It’s tough, because a lot of people think, “Oh, the child’s not speaking English; therefore, they must be delayed.” But we would have to do the assessment in the child’s home language, too, because the delay in language would also be in their home language as well as in English. It wouldn’t just be an English-only delay. We really need to talk to families about if they’ve got any concerns and keeping in mind that different cultures have different views about disability and different levels of comfort sharing concerns about disability. But that certainly would help us to know if we do need additional observations and assessment if family members also have some concerns.

If the family member as well as teachers have concerns more about global delays, instead of just language, and seeing how the child is interacting with children. Do they have some concerns about their social and emotional development, their cognitive development, their physical development? That, of course, would be a good sign that we would need further assessment.

When we are going to screen and evaluate young children who are dual language learners, we need to find out what their dominant language is. So, again, we need to talk with the families about what languages their child has been exposed to and how often. So, for example, is the child hearing a language different from their home language when they’re visiting grandparents? If so, how often do they do this, because that amount of exposure can help us, again, to determine is there just a difference in the amount of the different languages that the child has been exposed to and so therefore they may know more in one language than in another. Another question to find out from families, has the child been exposed to different languages at the same time from birth? So perhaps they’re simultaneously developing dual languages, or have they just been primarily exposed to one language in the infant and toddler years, and then they’re being exposed at school or in some other setting to English or another second language, so that they’re more sequential dual language learners? All of that information really helps us to paint a clear picture of the child in context, so that we won’t make a mistake and think that they’re delayed in their home language and/or in English, because we’ve talked to the family to find out what has been their experience in English. All these are great questions that help us understand where a child may be developmentally in language learning.

In addition to talking with families about the different languages and different experiences that a child has had, we can also use some parent-based screening instruments like “Ages and Stages.” There is a valid version for Spanish-speaking children with something a little more structured and formal that we can really find out about a family’s concern of their child’s development. Are they concerned specifically about speech and language development in their home language? Then that would give us a good opportunity to talk to families about a language delay in their home language might also possibly cause a language delay in English. But we really need to be able to assess the child in both home language and in English.

We do need to consider also a young dual language learner’s unique set of circumstances. Again, we can learn those by talking to family members, doing home visits, doing ongoing observations of the child at home, in the community, and in classrooms. We just need to know perhaps they’ve never been exposed to some of the items that we might want them to manipulate when we’re using a screener. Perhaps they just have not had the chance to really play with some of the toys, so therefore they may not seem as competent. We definitely want to rule out limited exposure that’s causing the child to seem somewhat delayed in a classroom situation.

We need to figure out their conceptual knowledge. Young children who are dual language learners often have learned concepts in their home language, but that yet hasn’t transferred to English, or whatever the second language is that they’re learning. So it really is important to have the child screened and/or assessed in their home language as well as in English.

We need to determine each child’s interests, their temperament, their learning style, how long they’ve been in a particular setting. We know with all children that the more familiar they are with the people and with materials, with the environment, the more competence they show, and this is especially true for young children who are dual language learners, because they are also learning a second language at the same time they’re becoming familiar with perhaps different people and different experiences.

We know language learning is a very dynamic process that may change from minute to minute or hour to hour, so that’s why it’s so important to do ongoing assessment and do observations at different times and in different circumstances. For example, a child may show more or less complex receptive and language ability, depending on how familiar they are with a story book. Or if this has been a story book shared in their home language, they may be able to show more competence in answering questions or interacting with that story book in the classroom even in English, because they are familiar with some of the pictures and concepts of the book in their home language.

So, overall, we need to not rely on standardized assessments, because they’re probably not going to be normed on that particular population that the dual language learner is coming from. And we just need to use our authentic assessment approaches by observing and documenting over time and involve the family as much as possible to find out what they think about the child’s ability and what they know about how the child can learn. So I think those are the main things we need to think about when screening and assessing young dual language learners.

Narrator: Thank you for listening to this episode of the IRIS Center podcast. For more information about the IRIS Center and its resources, visit us at www.iriscenter.com [https://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/].

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