Evaluation is one huge hurdle to working with English Language Learners (ELL). The second is providing therapy. Once you’ve determined there is a disorder, what do you do? Do you provide treatment in English? What goals do you target? Can you provide competent treatment in English only?
It may be easier to address some of these ideas for specific age ranges. For the children under 3 years of age, working with an interpreter in the primary language with the family on how to talk with toddlers and babies is your best friend. It is important to be mindful of possible cultural differences in how adults and children relate to each other. Not every culture values parent-child verbal interactions as the stereotypical white middle class family might. How to address these differences is like a dance. If one person is too powerful of a leader the other cannot follow, might stumble, and ultimately will quit dancing. A parent/caretaker who does not share the value we place on parent-child interactions will most likely not follow through on our recommendations. In which case it may be better to train a sibling how to model language for a younger sibling. Make sure you understand the family and/or cultural relationships as much as possible first.
For preschool age children (depending on family views of preschool) your efforts should go toward encouraging the family to enroll the child in Head Start, preschool, daycare, or even scheduling consistent “play dates” to expose the child to typical language development. If possible, encourage both languages (primary language and English). What about therapy? Targeting social language, the Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills, in English is essential. Children will need these skills to be successful in the academic world.
For school age children, research suggest that there is a strong correlation between ELL students with a language learning disorder and poor and/or inappropriate social skills and therefore, have fewer friends when compared to other students who are ELL. Social skills groups are very important for these students. Simultaneously, targeting Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency will help close the language gap these students have. One approach to do that is by teaching root words, suffixes, and prefixes (morphology). As we learn in linguistics, they are like puzzle pieces. For example, you can take the root word “view” and the prefix “re-“ and teach students that the view means “to look” and re- means “again.” When added together form “review” or “to look at again.” Then applying context, “The teacher tells you to review your work,” what does she want you to do? Helping students understand contexts for which they might hear the word and then additional contexts for when they might use the word is important. How does your work in English translate over to the primary language? Here is where parents come into play. Most parents I’ve worked with prefer you send the list of “academic” words (from curriculum and/or state standards) home in English. They can then use their personal dictionary to look up the correct correlating word in their home language, versus us guessing on a translation website. Have the parents talk with the child about these words in their home language. This builds the foundation for carryover from primary language to English. When using root words you can also can help students make educated guessed on definitions for words. Once students have a decent grasp on root words, some great games to play are Scrabble, Boggle, or Balderdash. An added benefit for teaching root words, is it’s included in the Common Core State Standards.
Here is some personal evidence. Last school year I had a 5th grade student who scored Level 1 (Beginning) on an English Language Proficiency Assessment for all of his academic years, Kindergarten through 4th grade. His 5th grade year we implemented a social skills group and taught root words from the curriculum. With the entire team’s support (student, parents, teacher, SLP) this student scored a Level 3 (Intermediate) on the same assessment. Some beliefs for such success was that our intervention targets were meaningful to him. Social skills helped his friendships and the root words helped him understand and communicate in the academic setting, which is the majority of his day Monday through Friday.
I am sure that there are other evidence-based therapy approaches to working with this population and they should all be founded on the same principals. 1) It is better to target both BICS and CALPs together that waiting for BICS to be mastered well enough to move to CALPs. Reason being, the language gap will only increase exponentially. 2) It is also better to work with the family.
I’d love to hear about other approaches. How do you address therapy for children and families who are not fluent in English?
Leisha Vogl, MS, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist with Sensible Speech-Language Pathology, LLC, in Salem, Oregon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.