I think of it as almost a spectrum of language abilities, with some students successfully developing both languages on one end, and on the other side, there are other students who have poorly developed speech and language skills in both languages. Somewhere in the middle are kids with awesome first language skills and a total lack of English.
The students on the very end are the students that I work with as a bilingual speech-language pathologist, as I need to see deficits in both languages to go forward with therapy services. But it can get murky with those bilingual kids in the middle who have scattered strengths and weaknesses in both languages.
Are the students simply learning English for the first time? Or do they need to be referred for speech therapy? Here are some tips to help you make the decision to bring a speech path on board to observe, screen, and evaluate:
1) Conversation with friends
Kids with typically developing language skills want to engage peers in conversation. Most kids between the ages of four and seven like to talk about things they are thinking, their feelings, and fun jokes. They enjoy socializing and sharing about themselves in their native language – and seek out friends who speak their same language. Red flag: A student does not share or engage a peer in conversation in their home language and has trouble initiating conversation with peers.
2) Advocating to meet their needs
At the beginning of the year, teachers instruct the students on the classroom procedures required to go to the bathroom, to get a drink of water, and where to find the tissues. Most students, even those learning English for the first time, figure out how to follow the classroom routines, especially the ones that are related to self-care. Red flag: Student is unable to request or follow classroom procedures to use the bathroom, to get a drink of water, or to find the tissues without cues or assistance from the teacher.
3) Ask the parents
Parents are sometimes not the best reporters about their children’s language skills and abilities – sometimes they might not understand the question. But asking the parents directly about their child’s ability to use their native language is a great way to collect information about a student’s functioning. Red Flag: Parents say that the student has trouble saying speech sounds, understanding directions, or expressing themselves in the home language.
4) Attempting English phrases
Students learning English often start to attempt what is called “automatic speech” in English. Those would be “I’m sorry,” “I don’t know,” and “Let’s go.” A student with typical language acquisition would start to use these phrases first. A typically developing student’s English acquisition would accelerate rapidly as the first school months roll by. Red flag: Student does not use phrases of “automatic speech” and is not acquiring English as quickly as other learners.
5) Bring in a translator
Many schools have teachers and classroom assistants from the same language community as the English Language Learners. I’m lucky that I speak Spanish fluently, but if I didn’t, I would be able to rely on the staff at my school, because at least 30% of the staff speak Spanish, too. Find someone in the school (e.g. teacher, classroom aide, paraprofessional, or a member of the PTO) who speaks the target language and ask him or her to come into the class as a Mystery Reader. They could introduce themselves to the classroom in English and the other targeted language. If the student lights up when hearing their native language by commenting on the story and trying to engage the Mystery Reader in conversation, then you know they have comprehension in their native language. Red flag: Student doesn’t engage verbally with people who speak home language fluently.
The only caveat I want you to know about is if the student is a refugee or has experienced trauma of some kind. Teachers will notice that these students have difficulty initiating conversation and using language to meet their needs, but many times it’s related to their difficult life circumstances. If you suspect a history of trauma, consider setting up a discussion with the parents and the school social worker to talk about the student’s difficulties functioning in the classroom. That kind of communication issue does not typically fall under the umbrella of speech therapy but instead is in the domain of counseling, a different kind of talk therapy. 😉
If you have any concerns about speech and language in your classroom, it’s always best to talk to the speech pathologist assigned to your school. Unfortunately, some monolingual English speech paths don’t know what to do with bilingual kids. I’ve seen Spanish-speaking kids who don’t have speech issues receiving therapy and kids with speech issues being passed over because the English speech path didn’t know how to proceed. Feel free to contact me with any questions you have!
Sarah Wu says
Thank you for featuring my guest post on your blog. I really enjoyed sharing my expertise! 🙂
Sara Calderon says
Hi Sarah, Your post was very interesting. I teach at an international school where the first language for most of the students is Spanish and English is the language they are learning. My question concerns my daughter, she is learning both languages and falls in that mixed up middle where neither one is the dominant language. She was referred for therapy, so we did it for a year, but in Spanish as that was the stronger language at the time. Her therapist said that she is doing fine in Spanish now, but when I read with her and listen to her in English, she still has problems saying some sounds fluently. What would you recommend?
Gretchen Moser says
My grandson speaks and understands Spanish and English. English, I would say is his first language though both languages are used in his US home. He is 3 yr 1 mo old. He spends about
10 weeks a year in Mexico spread through out the year with a long stay in the summer. He seemed to be on track or even ahead in his speech ability until about his 3rd birthday. We noticed the "tree year old stutter" and were not worried. He made a two week trip to Mexico where he did not hear English at all. When he came home he could hardly speak. He struggled to start a conversation (anything he had to think through and then say. . .he did better with common sayings or things he was repeating). He struggled so that he has reduced his speech by about 30-40% He often says "You say it". He throws himself on the bed crying when he can not get the words out. He has taken speech therapy since age 2 to stay ahead of things. He also has an epilepsy diagnosis, though no seizures during this time. He speech path asked for us to see the neurologist since the severe problems getting his words out happened so quickly. We spoke to a pastor who grew up speaking both languages and he said he stuttered when he got in situations where he suddenly was having to switch which language he "thought" in and as he mastered both language and switching thinking he controlled his stutter. How worried should we be?