Educators around the world are increasingly likely to have dual language learners (DLLs) – students learning multiple languages – in their classrooms. When DLLs struggle academically, educators may have difficulty determining if their challenges relate to dual language development or an underlying specific learning disability (SLD). The difference can be hard to detect. DLLs and children with SLD often demonstrate similar characteristics: short attention span; fear in new situations; difficulty with recall, vocabulary, and comprehension; and frequent syntactical/grammatical errors.
There is a lack of legal and political consensus about the definition and identification of SLD. Thus, the evaluating team has a great responsibility in exercising clinical judgment. However, educators rarely have training on how bilingual language development effects on learning and behavior. The long-lasting effects of these decisions can be tremendous.
Considering DLLs incorrectly identified as having a SLD may actually be hurt by special education services, it is critical that special educators and school psychologists conduct linguistically responsive assessments for struggling DLLs. What might such a model look like?
First, linguistically responsive assessment practice should reconsider how children are initially referred to special education evaluations. Efforts might include:
- Developing coherent, data-driven, multidisciplinary, equitable procedures that are used throughout the school/district to guide the process of learning disability identification to minimize bias and overreliance on the subjective judgment of one person
- Including a diverse range of individuals on the referral team that can meet regularly and collaboratively to identify struggling students
- Seeking evidence of processing and learning challenges across languages and settings to clarify which students have difficulties that are context-specific (e.g., only at school in an English-speaking environment) and thus likely not due to a learning disability
- Intervening before referral for an evaluation, as some DLLs may be struggling academically due to insufficient instruction or support
Multidimensional Language Assessment
Once a DLL student is referred for an evaluation, the first step should be to examine multilingual language development, cultural background/orientation, and family context. Efforts might include:
- Integrating behavioral observations across settings, standardized tests, questionnaires, interviews with multiple informants, and a review of educational records
- Ensuring standardized language proficiency assessments focus only on language development – if they also test academic skills or cultural knowledge, student results should be contextualized with that information
- Assessing/examining all languages to which the child has been exposed
Appropriate Evaluation in Cognitive Functioning and Achievement
After information on a student’s language development has been integrated, the evaluator can identify appropriate assessment tools/procedures for assessing cognitive functioning and achievement. Efforts might include:
- Using tests designed for the student’s language and cultural background and/or that have been adapted for similar bilingual populations
- Assessing academic skills in languages other than English if the student has received instruction in other languages
- Considering the cultural knowledge and level of language use required on the assessments
- Including nonverbal or less-verbal measures
- Documenting accommodations/modifications made to standard testing procedure (e.g., an interpreter, application of conceptual scoring), and behavioral observations during testing to identify attention, effort, and test-taking strategies
Curriculum-Based Dynamic Assessment
Curriculum-based dynamic assessment can also be used to examine how DLLs learn as they are being taught. Efforts might include:
- Breaking down new tasks for students in their academic area of difficulty
- Gathering information on progress and making observations about steps taken to complete the task
- Comparing work samples to those of peers with similar cultural backgrounds and language proficiency
- Differentiating if the student’s difficulties were related to language (e.g., students can complete tasks satisfactorily, but with language challenges, using multiple instructional prompts using various modalities) or processing (e.g., students have difficulty understanding instructions even with multiple prompts or difficulty sequencing steps, or they are producing subpar work compared to peers with similar language backgrounds)
Focus on Strengths and Needs
Regardless of the outcomes of the assessment process, results should emphasize the student’s strengths and needs to the student, family and evaluating teams, and provide recommendations for teachers moving forward. Efforts might include:
- Discussing ways to celebrate and leverage strengths and support needs with the family and evaluating team
- Reflecting on whether other DLLs in the same classroom have similar needs and how broader systems changes might meet these needs
Distinguishing between typical dual language development and SLD is a tremendous challenge for educators. We have an ethical responsibility to ensure all students have equitable opportunities to participate meaningfully in education, and only students who benefit from special education receive such services. Hopefully by conducting more linguistically responsive psychoeducational evaluations, we can move toward strengths-based assessments that support the academic development of all multilingual students.
About the Author
Kelly Edyburn is a PhD student in the Department of Counseling, Clinical, and School Psychology at the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at the University of California Santa Barbara. As a school psychology student, her research explores bilingual language and literacy development as well as culturally and linguistically responsive pedagogy, assessment, and intervention. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.