5 Ways to Find Out If Your Bilingual Student Has a Speech Problem

Today’s guest blogger is Sarah, who is a bilingual speech-language pathologist. Sarah’s experiences working with students who are both learning English as a second language and needing speech therapy services have helped her to develop these five ways that you can determine if your bilingual student has a speech problem.


It can be hard to tell if an English Language Learner is struggling to learn the English language or if they actually have a speech and language development issue that's contributing to the problem. These five tips will help you determine if your bilingual student has a speech problem.
Bilingual students are unique because they are developing speech and language skills in two languages. Every bilingual child is different: Some are learning two languages simultaneously at home and at school, while others speak only one language at home and come to school to learn English.


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 Speech-Language Pathologist Speech Is Beautiful
Bio: Sarah Wu, M.A. CCC-SLP is a bilingual speech-language pathologist in her tenth year in schools. She is a writer and a published author. Sarah works with Spanish-speaking children with communication disorders that range from speech sound errors to language impairments (difficulties with oral comprehension and verbal expression). She blogs at Speech Is Beautiful and has a TpT store. Sarah lives in Illinois with her husband, their two young sons, and their one big dog.
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