Erick Sanchez, Pamela Greenhalgh
Pamela Greenhalgh shows a picture to a student and asks what he sees in the drawing.
“The girl is thinking about the cookies,” replies the fifth-grader at Maxwell Elementary School in Anaheim.
Greenhalgh, a speech-language pathologist, is determining whether Erick’s difficulties are caused by a language disorder or are part of the process of acquiring a new language. Erick comes from an indigenous community in Mexico. Zapotecan is his native language, but his mother spoke to him in Spanish. When he arrived in the United States a few years ago, he began learning English. He is struggling with word endings and the ability to imitate sounds.
English learners are often misdiagnosed as having a language disorder and wrongly put into special education programs. Greenhalgh worries about students like Erick being misdiagnosed. It is important that English learners have help, she asserts, but it must be the right kind of help. We asked Greenhalgh, who is president of the Magnolia Educators Association, to explain.
Misdiagnosing language disorders happens often?
The 24th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act reported that, between 1987 and 2001, the percentage of the general population who did not speak English at home increased by 2.5 percent. However, the percentage of students from these homes who were identified for special services increased 10.9 percent. As the pressure increases for higher test scores, there is more pressure to put children into special education. We really care about kids and want to make sure they have as much help as possible, but sometimes more is just more, and not necessarily better.
Does second-language learning mimic a language disorder?
Yes. Moving from one's homeland to a new country can induce cultural shock, feelings of isolation, and linguistic challenges related to immersion in a totally different language. It does not, however, mean a child has a language disorder. The Education Code says that if problems are due to second-language acquisition or cultural or environmental types of issues, the child does not have a “disorder.” But we are in a quandary when a second-language learner is behind.
What are the implications of misdiagnosis?
Research has found that if we have expectations for children to do well and have them in general education with English language development and access to core curriculum, they do well. If there is an expectation that they can’t do well because they have a disorder, they will sometimes live up to that, even without a disorder.
Does environment play a role?
Yes. I recently had an “aha!” moment about what might be contributing to the delay in a child’s developing language. You may have families renting one bedroom of an apartment, and nobody is supposed to make any noise or they lose their living situation. So keeping children quiet is extremely important. Do people interact or talk with kids on a consistent basis? If the parents are mixing two languages, it could mean the child doesn’t have a true primary language and they may need more time to develop language in the classroom. The parents may be fluent in English, but perhaps the primary caregiver is the grandparent who doesn’t speak English, so the child’s primary language is Spanish. So it helps to look at other factors in the child’s environment.
What about professional development?
There is little professional development that deals with this topic. Sometimes there’s pressure because parents want special education. They believe the more services a child has, the better off that child will be. And parents sometimes will take their child to a doctor or psychologist who doesn’t speak the language of the child to see why the child isn’t talking, and that can be a problem.
How does the process for second-language acquisition work?
It takes three to five years to develop basic conversational proficiency and five to seven years for cognitive academic skills that are required in schools. Children have a silent period when they are first acquiring a second language. Some programs children are in are so demanding at such a young age that children are in a state of shock. Sometimes they need more time and opportunities. Preschool can help in catching a child up.
What is the protocol?
The Education Code says you’re supposed to refer a child to special education only after the resources of general education have been considered and when appropriate, utilized. General education support programs like RtI (Response to Intervention) give struggling students supports before we consider putting them into special education.
How can educators work with parents?
Many parents are working and busy, so they tend to just have rudimentary conversations with children. “Brush your teeth; go to bed; put your things away; go get a snack.” I encourage parents to speak in their primary language and to use the world as a teaching environment for vocabulary. Encourage parents to read books aloud, talk about items they see when they go to the grocery store, and teach all the names of household items. I asked one parent to do these things and a year later, when I retested the child, his vocabulary was off the charts.
What about speech-language pathologists?
There are little things that can help. See what the child’s primary language is and how it is structured. Sometimes the “th” sound is not in the primary language, so the SLP will realize the child does not have a disorder if he or she cannot make that sound. Sometimes a child will not have an s at the end of words to signify plural in their primary language, so they are using the rules of their own primary language to produce English. Try and see if they are using the grammar and rules of their primary language to speak English and you might see they do not have a disorder.
Any last thoughts?
We owe it to our children to give them a chance — to see whether they are going to do well in a general education setting — and then if they don’t do well, we can look at special education services. My district is getting really good at that. Being aware of possible misdiagnosis and having the resources to understand the second-language acquisition process is important for general education teachers, special education and specialists. The more we know, the better we can serve our children.