Referrals and Language Exposure

It’s happened countless times before, and will happen again - language concerns are expressed for a new student with limited English exposure. Many therapists are unsure of how to handle the initial request, not being familiar with the language, be it Spanish, Russian, or Swahili.

Imagine the following scenario:

Little Jun is 5 and just moved into your district from China. She’s been attending preschool classes two mornings a week for a month, but has no other English exposure. Mom is asking for a language referral - Jun repeats questions instead of answering them, doesn’t use verbs, and has a limited vocabulary, typically using words such as “this, that,” and “there.” Jun’s teachers have concerns as Jun isn’t following directions in class or participating. She seems to not understand the requests made of her and doesn’t do much during the day.

At the same time Jun moved into your district, Amala came from India. Amala is also 5 and attends preschool two mornings a week. Her teachers have come to you with language concerns as Amala interacts minimally with staff and has difficulty following directions. She does interact with her classmates by tapping them on the shoulder and motioning with her hands. Occasionally, Amala tries to talk to the teacher, but no one knows what she is saying. Amala has learned two words so far - “hi” and “bye.”

What do you, the speech pathologist, do?

For Jun, take the referral and talk to your district about finding a translator to aid in your evaluation. Mom has expressed a language delay in Jun’s native language (defined by the American Speech Language Hearing Association [ASHA] as the home language), and difficulties are also being seen in the classroom. As a SLP, it is now your job to find the language delay if there is one.

In Amala’s case, you need to talk to the family. If there are no language concerns expressed in Amala’s native language, there is no way to rule out limited English exposure as being the issue. The only exceptions to this are if you speak Amala’s home language and can screen the skills that are necessary in the language she is proficient in, or the family is proficient enough in English to translate while you screen basic skills she should know at this point.

Because Amala tries to communicate with peers through non-verbal methods and has learned limited interpersonal language, she will most likely not be a referral for language. Read up on her native language and culture, so you understand the communication expectations to which she has been exposed. Then, interview her teachers and family for information on her communication skills.

Once you have accepted a language referral for a child who is limited English proficient (LEP), you need to, you either need to speak their native language (for June, Mandarin), or find a translator who does.

Typically, school districts require standardized scores for eligibility criteria into services. For this to occur, you need to recruit a translator. Ideally, you would then utilize a language test that has been standardized on children who speak the same language as your student. If you have a test like this, or find one and can convince your district to buy it, great! However, these tests can be difficult to find, and frequently doesn’t exist.

If that is the case, the options you have are 1) don’t use a language test and go solely off a language sample in the native language, or 2) translate an English test into the native language. The best for you to do would to be take a language sample in both English and the native language, and to translate an English test. This gives you an idea of how the student is functioning in relation to other ELLs (through their development of English with Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills [BICS] and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency [CALP]), as well as shows weaknesses in their native language.

The bottom line is that a deficiency in the native language will translate to a deficiency in their second language. If there is no delay/difficulty in the home language, a language disorder cannot be established with minimal English exposure, and services cannot be provided.

If you translate a test, keep in mind the standardized scores are not valid, as the test administration has been altered. Also, the test was not normed on speakers of the foreign language, so the scores cannot be used to qualify for services. The report will have to be descriptive and professional judgement has to be used in this case to recommend or not recommend services.

After sufficient English exposure, students will be able to qualify for services if they demonstrate a typicalities in their language development. Keep in mind that both basic interpersonal language and academic language take years to develop, so bilingual students might appear to be behind their monolingual peers. The home language still has to be considered in this case as well.

For more information regarding ELLs, check out what ASHA says.