Learning Disability or Language Development Issue?
by Susan Litt
Have you ever found yourself debating whether one of your ESL/Bilingual students has a learning disability that is hindering his/her progress in school? Determining whether a child has normal language acquisition issues or a learning disability can be a difficult process. Many questions must be answered before appropriate decisions can be made.
How does one make the decision to place an ESL/Bilingual child in a special education program? There are many questions that must be answered before a Child Study Team (CST)decides to recommend referral. We must remember that mainstream teachers view our students from a different perspective and often see their language development issues as a learning disability.
The Prereferral Process
When a child is being recommended for a Child Study Team evaluation, we can not allow the team members to automatically throw the referral back to the ESL/Bilingual Department saying that the problem is a second language problem; nor should we rush headlong into the evaluation/classification process. Below are some things that you as ESL/Bilingual educators can do to prevent both of these harmful actions.
First, you must go through the prereferral process. The prereferral process is a screening and intervention process that involves identifying problems that a student is having and ways to help deal with these problems. The purpose is to avoid unnecessary referral to the CST. During the prereferral process there are a few steps to be followed to assure success.
- Identify the problems experienced by the student.
- Identify the source of the problem.
- Present the problem to the IR&S Committee. Make sure that you (the ESL/bilingual teacher) attend the meeting along with the classroom teacher.
- Invite the parents to the meeting.
- Develop a plan of action at the meeting to be implemented by all concerned parties.
- Have a follow-up meeting to discuss the effectiveness of the proposed interventions and how they worked or didn't.
Assessing the ESL/Bilingual Student
If the above strategies do not work, then it is time to go further. The referral of a student for testing should not be taken lightly. All avenues must be explored before inclusion in Special Education. It is important when evaluating a student to throw away the traditional testing model and to collect data in a portfolio. Input from the ESL teacher, the bilingual teacher, the classroom teacher who works with the student regularly, and the family should all become the basis for the assessment process.
Ideally, students should be tested in their native language. But life is not always ideal. When a child speaks a language such as Macedonian and a test does not exist, the next best thing to do is to use a trained interpreter. The key word here is trained. Do not use friends, family members, or siblings. Schools are legally responsible for those services; so we, as advocates for the student, should make sure the correct procedure is followed. The law requires that all state and local education agencies ensure that test and evaluation materials be provided and administered in the child's native language, when possible. Our limited English-proficient students have the same rights as the students in the general population.
Considerations the Child Study Team Should Make
The CST that evaluates the child needs to be aware of the many aspects of the child's life such as length of time in the U.S., emotional well-being, stage of acculturation, health status, child's playmates, and the child's caregivers before and after school. All four skill areas need to be assessed: Listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Auditory processing, auditory memory, visual deficits, and learning style should be considered. It is important to determine whether the difficulty that the student is exhibiting exists in both languages or just in one language. Is the learning environment affecting the child? Is there a discrepancy between performance and IQ? A discrepancy could be due to the cultural bias of the IQ test. Are there social-emotional problems? These problems could be due to cultural differences.
Questions to Determine Learning Difficulties
Other questions that must be asked in order to determine whether the difficulties being seen are due to learning or language problems are:
- Has the child's problem persisted over time? If the child has a language problem, errors in his/her oral language skills will improve over a period of time. If the child has a learning problem, his/her skills will not improve.
- Has the problem resisted normal classroom instruction? If the child has received explicit instruction in the problem area and still does not improve, it is probably a learning problem.
- Does the problem interfere with the child's academic progress?
- Does the child show a clear pattern of strengths and weaknesses? Does the child have good oral skills but poor written skills?
- Is there an irregular pattern of success? Does the child seem to get it one day and not the next?
If the answer to all the questions is "Yes," or you have answered "Yes," to the first four questions, it is most likely that the child has a learning disability. If the problem exists in both the first(L1) and second languages(L2), it is also likely that the child has a learning disability.
Determining Language Dominance
Language dominance and proficiency need to be determined. That cannot be done solely in the context of the school environment. The parents need to be included. A family history should be taken. Below are some of the questions to ask the parents:
1. At what age did the child start to speak in L1?
2. Did the child go to school in the native country?
3.Which language works best when explaining things to your child?
4. At what level was the child functioning in school in L1? in L2?
5. In which language does your child express wants, needs, and feelings best?
6. How well does your child understand L1 speakers?
7. Which language does the child use when speaking to other children?
The child may be more proficient in some aspects of L1 and other aspects of L2. As an example, a child may have a larger vocabulary in L2 but a stronger grasp of grammar in L1. Therefore, it is critical that a screening proficiency be done in both languages.
Before the Final Decision is Made
Before the final decision is made by the CST, be sure that as much of the following information as possible has been included in the portfolio and used in helping to make that decision.
- Educational history
- Family history
- Oral samples (in L1 and L2)
- Writing samples (in L1 and L2)
- Standardized language assessment (in L1 and L2)
- Academic Assessment
- Psychological assessment (in L1 and L2)
- Teacher narrative on social, emotional, and behavioral issues
- Determination of the student's strengths and weaknesses
Be sure to share this information with your Child Study Team so that they will understand your position and know why you feel so strongly about it. Remember that in the end we are making an educated guess. We hope that by collecting data our decision is the correct one for the success of the student. The final decision is not a life sentence. Re-evaluation does happen. De-classification does happen.
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