California Teachers Association

March 2013

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> S P E E C H P AT H O L O G Y Language disorder — or just learning a new language? Pamela Greenhalgh shows a picture to a student and asks what he sees in the drawing... "T he girl is thinking about the cookies," replies the fifthgrader 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. 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. Misdiagnosing language disorders happens often? The 24th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Does environment Disabilities Education Act play a role? reported that, between 1987 Yes. I recently had an "aha!" and 2001, the percentage of moment about what might be the general population who contributing to the delay in did not speak English at home a child's developing language. increased by 2.5 percent. HowYou may have families renting ever, the percentage of students one bedroom of an apartment, from these homes who were and nobody is supposed to Pamela Greenhalgh identified for special services make any noise or they lose increased 10.9 percent. As the their living situation. So keeppressure increases for higher test scores, ing children quiet is extremely important. there is more pressure to put children into Do people interact or talk with kids on a conspecial education. We really care about kids sistent basis? If the parents are mixing two and want to make sure they have as much languages, it could mean the child doesn't 40 California Educator March 2013 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

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