On the Brink of Kindergarten: Placement of Bilingual Students


As a preschool-based speech-language pathologist in New York City, I get a number of bilingual children on my caseload every year. Many of them are sequential bilingual learners, with English being their second language (L2). It is also not uncommon for these sequential bilinguals to first begin to acquire their L2 here at the preschool. Speech-language and overall cognitive functioning of these children varies greatly, often a function of how much exposure to English they had to prior to preschool. During the Turning Five meetings, these students’ overall speech-language progress becomes especially salient.

At these meetings, I find that for some of our bilingual students, particularly the sequential bilinguals, the kindergarten setting recommended by the evaluation team tends to be smaller (for example, a classroom size of 12). This type of educational environment is often recommended for children with severe delays and disorders such as autism spectrum disorders, learning disability and childhood apraxia of speech.

During one of these meetings, a graduating student I will call Andy was described as extremely slow to progress and retain information. All team members agreed he requires a lot of support to comprehend basic in-context commands in therapy sessions and the classroom, and presents with minimal use of words. However, we also know that he is from a home where the primary language is not English. In addition, the student only joined the program at the age of 4, not at 3, which would probably have made a big difference. The speech-language evaluation in the child’s file indicates a severe delay in English (I bet I would be severely delayed in a language to which I had minimal or no exposure) but no mention of the skills present in L1. Communication with the family has been limited due to a language barrier.

There are many bilingual children in the New York City school system that follow Andy’s path. Hence, it should always be alarming to us, the educators, when a bilingual student in whom L1 is not English but there are no known global delays transitions into a kindergarten setting of 12. Additionally, a kindergarten special education classroom includes students with a variety of diagnoses and behaviors, with the more severely impaired students not providing a model for appropriate social skills and verbal communication.

So why do these students continue to get placed into smaller, more restrictive educational settings? Most obviously because of concern that they will not be able to function in a larger setting. But what could we be doing instead? Each child’s case would need to be studied individually. Specifically, we would need to review all the relevant cultural and linguistic background information starting at birth, such as the amount of L1 and L2 exposure in and out of home, history of speech- language delays, and the level of education in the family, to name a few. Other variables to consider are: 1) the amount of time that the bilingual student has spent in an all-English formal academic setting, 2) the presence of “problem” behaviors that significantly maintain the overall delays and reduce time the student is actually learning, and 3) the lack of sufficient, if any, L1 support (Spanish/ Bengali/Arabic) received in the school setting, including from an assigned SLP.

The latter one is of particular interest to me, as I am a bilingually certified English/Russian speech-language pathologist. However, I have little practical language skill to offer to my Arabic-, Spanish-, Bengali- or Albanian-speaking students. In such cases we, for the lack of a better word, “exercise,” our nonverbal communication skills and teach English as a second language.

Sure, an ongoing collaboration and a close relationship with the child’s family can potentially shed light on the speech-language and cognitive skills of the student. However, my experience has been that, due to communication barriers, the family yields little information that can guide me. Therefore, in most cases, I cannot reliably pinpoint speech-language deficits present in languages other than English or Russian.

This is an ongoing issue of inappropriate services to and settings for our bilingual special education students. Research is full of examples of typically developing bilingual students taking longer to learn and acquire L2 skills. This is even more consequential for children with special needs, whose speech- language and/or cognition is already delayed. Subtractive bilingualism is the term Fred Genesee and colleagues use in their book “Dual Language Development and Disorders” (2004) to describe this language-learning dilemma and the danger of “switching” our culturally diverse students to English only. According to the literature, the problem with monolingual (English-only) placements is that many of our already delayed bilingual children can’t “catch up” to their monolingual peers. Therefore, the all-English classroom setting of 12 carries a rather pessimistic long-term implication for overall academic success.

But what if every bilingual child with special needs received enough L1 support? Would that change the outcome? What if we had enough bilingual certified SLPs representing a variety of cultures and languages to help our culturally diverse students? Would the bilingual children still be placed into restrictive settings with no L1 support and with communicative interactions that offer few appropriate models? I believe that if these students received speech-language services in both the L1 and L2, they would make significantly more progress and at a much higher rate.

It would certainly further expedite their progress and make the instruction more holistic and ethical. Of course, today, more than ever, we have major problems with budget cuts that affect the number and the size of special education classrooms available to us, as well as the amount and the type of services we can offer. In fact, in recent years it has become much more difficult to qualify a child for related services even in the presence of notable deficits. Greater still is the cost of not delivering appropriate and culturally/linguistically ethical services to our bilingual children. We might be in far greater need of special education services years down the line when trying to remediate difficulties that were further compromised due to lack of appropriate language support. Just something to think about!

Natalie Romanchukevich, MS, CCC-SLP, is a bilingual Russian speech-language pathologist at the Children’s Center for Early Learning in New York City. This post is adapted from a guest post Natalie Romanchukevich wrote for Tatyana Elleseff’s blog Smart Speech Therapy. Natalie can be reached at natalieslp@gmail.com.


  1. Casey says

    In the example given (a good one, and one that is quite common) the key to me is the lack of information in the file of the child’s L1 skills. Without knowing those skills, how can we say there is any special education impairment at all in L2? English Language Learner services seem more warranted in this example than the skills of an SLP, although I see SLPs playing a huge role in similar situations daily. This is a HUGE problem in our educational system, and one that seems to be forgotten in the world of high stakes testing, pushing skills downward into lower grade levels, and expecting students to “make progress towards proficiency.” It is not only happening in NYC, but in districts across the country. It will be a grand day when schools and educators can teach children using best practices at a rate where students will learn and succeed rather than expecting students to fit into pre-set molds and meet expectations that may not be fully attainable in the timetable given.

  2. says

    Natalie, thank you so much for bringing up this very important topic. As a bilingual Vietnamese SLP, I whole-heartedly support your desire to provide what is BEST for our second language learners. I provide support to bilingual SLPs in my region, and I feel that it is VITAL to give support to our monolingual SLPs in the field. ALL of us, at one point, will work with a child with second language needs, and there is information out there to support appropriate methodologies. A district in my region, the Round Rock Independent School District, gave a two-day training to their 46 SLPs on Second Language Acquisition and research-based teaching strategies. It was a vital and impactful collaboration between SLPs and educational personnel working with ESOL students. Again, thank you for bringing light to this matter.

    • Shannon Pravetz says

      Can you please provide any information you have regarding the two-day training that was provided? Who provided the training? I would love to set that up for September 2013. That sounds like something our school district could use!
      Thank you,

      • says

        Hi Shannon,

        The two day training was typically something that was provided within the district for teachers who wanted to be ESOL certified. Round Rock ISD is a large district. So, they had in-house people who provided the training. Of course, our SLPs are not teacher certified. So, they could not take the state test to have the official certification; however, the information was VERY useful. If you contact the leads in your district who oversee the bilingual programs/ESOL programs, they may be able to get you in contact with trainees from your area. Also, the same district had a district-wide training regarding Collectivism and Individualism. This, also, is a useful training regarding cultural sensitivity and awareness. Recently, the Texas Speech-Language-Hearing Association newsletter, the Communicologist, had an article on this topic. Dr. Sarah Nelson and Dr. Pat Guerra of Texas State University are the ones who conducted this 3 full-day training. I hope this helps.

        • Shannon Pravetz says

          Hi Phuong,
          In our district in New York State, we currently house all of the elementary aged English Language Learners in one of our 3 elementary schools. I don’t agree with moving these students to one building, but it was done with good intentions due to the availability of our ESOL teachers.

          I happen to work with almost all of these students, both classified with IEPs as well as non-classified students. Thank you for the information. I am hoping to make changes to our program here in NY!

  3. Natalie Romanchukevich says

    Dear Casey and Phuong Lien,

    Thank you both so much for your opinion and support on this important issue. Casey, I agree wholeheartedly that improving the quality of bilingual/ bicultural evaluations and raising expectations of report writing would make our “intervention” job easier. I cannot express enough how often I read a speech- language evaluation and there is not a mention of the child’s L1skills despite the “it should be noted that the child comes from a Bengali/ Arabic/ Russian speaking home with X language being the primary…” statement.
    However, providing a more thorough bilingual training for all of our speech- pathologists and raising nationwide awareness about the implications of inappropriate service provision (e.g. instances when a monolingual speech pathologist is working with a bilingual child, especially in the absence of ANY skills in English) and special education classroom placements for these bilingual students is a bigger challenge. Phuong Lien, what you are making happen in your region is what should be happening all across the country. Thank you for sharing this! Where are you exactly? How difficult was it to push for this training to support monolingual SLPs?

    I am also afraid that there is a general attitude of “you live in America, so, hey, learn to speak English” underlying the bilingualism “issue” in our educational system, and that is something that is difficult to work with. Without a doubt, our children must learn English to be successful in the country where English IS the official language, but not at the expense of inappropriate special ed services and “let’s just lump them all together” placements.

    Again, I thank you for your enthusiasm and passion on this topic!
    – Natalie

    • says

      Natalie, in Round Rock ISD, there are staff professional development days set aside. Sometimes, SLPs are asked to stay on their own campuses. However, there are occasions when SLPs could come together as a group. Then, the speech leads collaborated with the leads of the bilingual/ESOL program to conduct the training for the 46 SLPs. Regarding the cultural sensitivity training, all teachers and staff members of the district received the training. Some groups received 3 full days of training. Other groups received multiple trainings on staff meeting days. To be honest, the district made a conscious effort to address this important topic.

      • Casey says

        Our region has also been tackling this issue through some recent trainings on cultural and linguistic diversity in early childhood populations. The recent training I went to was WONDERFUL! I think general education teachers feel frustrated, and their natural tendency is to look towards special education. In our area we get more of this from our local Head Start. It takes education of all parties. Like you said Shannon, it is a system issue, and a complicated one at that. Thanks for the good discussion!

    • Shannon says

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and opinions regarding bilingual students and services. Just a few thoughts/comments:

      When necessary, our school district utilizes a bilingual SLP to conduct evaluations to find out if the student presents with a language disorder in their L1. I agree that this is essential to any diagnosis.

      Just curious, what type of “bilingual training” would you suggest for monolingual therapists working with bilingual students?

  4. Natalie Romanchukevich says

    I am so happy we are having this great discussion and sharing our experiences, thoughts, opinions- passionately too!
    I am hoping to do a presentation at my school this year on bi- tri- multilingual language development. I know many of our teachers are already aware and knowledgeable so I will just talk about it from the disorder/ delay versus typical language abilities in culturally diverse preschoolers. We can’t stop the system in one day- these students will continue coming into our monolingual classrooms and receiving monolingual services- but we can share what we know with the rest of the team (initiate trainings, invite speakers, write articles to make it an issue EVERYONE talks about) and maybe learn another language meanwhile?!

  5. Natalie Romanchukevich says

    I think it’s great but also only ethical that your school district utilizes a bilingual SLP to conduct evaluations to find out if the student presents with a language disorder in their L1. However, if the child qualifies for services (confirmed delay/ disorder in both languages, which is usually the case as a TRUE disorder affects BOTH), who then provides speech- language services? Or do you mean that based on the findings of a bilingual evaluation the student may not be eligible for speech altogether? The bottom line is, ideally, you still want a bilingual speech pathologist providing services for the reasons I mention in my original post. That would be the best and most ethical model of service provision.

    I’m not sure what trainings are available in your area but you can always research that. Also, you can find out if any of the local Universities offer a bilingual extension (I know a few universities here in NY teach this course). That is IF you speak another language already. Otherwise, your school/ district would probably want to find a speaker who would do an in- service to at least offer valuable information about bilingualism (e.g. many sequential bilinguals learning English as a second language will go through a “silent” period first 3-6 months). This will still help you to be more aware of what potentially goes on with that culturally diverse student when he is just “not learning” in your sessions.

    There are a number of speech- pathologists in NY and NJ who offer lectures/ workshops. I’m looking to present on the topic at my school in the upcoming year. I know Tatyana Elleseff offers it in New Jersey and is a true expert when it comes to bilingualism. Whether you are monolingual or bilingual – we all need to know how these children learn and what is typical vs. disordered. Unfortunately, this does not resolve the issue of unethical service provision. We really need more bilingually trained providers and bilingual programs to respond to the needs of our increasingly diverse caseload. I, for instance, being a certified bilingual speech- language pathologist, still can ONLY legitimately remediate speech- language disorders in Russian/ English bilinguals. How can I help my Spanish or Arabic speaking students?

    Shannon, thank you so much for continuing this discussion. I really appreciate your post!