Home Academia & Research Collaborating with Teachers to Help English-Language Learners Succeed

Collaborating with Teachers to Help English-Language Learners Succeed

by Ellen Kester
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Hello in different languages word cloud on blackboard

The U.S. population is incredibly diverse. Our students and clients speak Spanish, Vietnamese, Amharic, Arabic, Cantonese, French, German, Hmong, Italian, Korean and Russian—to name just a few. This diversity makes our lives rich and our jobs as speech-language pathologists challenging.

However, I feel the simple framework described below can help SLPs tackle these challenges by:

  1. Identifying whether a child’s errors are due to language influence or speech-language disorder.
  2. Selecting appropriate goals for speech-language treatment.
  3. Helping general education teachers address English-as–a-second-language goals.

Last summer, Scott Prath—my colleague—wrote a blog post on selecting articulation goals for second-language learners. He covered items 1 and 2 above. He focused on the middle of the Venn diagram below—sounds shared between two languages.

Common vs unique sounds

In this post, I want to focus on the right side of the Venn diagram. The right side covers sounds unique to English for those learning English as a second language (L2).

By sounds unique to English, I mean the sounds we don’t worry about when evaluating an English language-learner to determine whether a speech impairment exists. If all errors occur with sounds unique to English, we won’t diagnose a speech impairment. That said, we also don’t want to ignore the fact that the child ended up in our testing room, because they were making errors.

Knowing a student  makes errors only resulting from language influence provides an excellent opportunity for us to collaborate with other professionals, like classroom teachers and English-as-a-second-language (ESL) teachers. Teachers go to tremendous lengths to complete referral packets for students. After going through this process, I like to tell them more than “Your student doesn’t qualify for speech services.”

I like to sit down with the student’s results and the Venn diagram—specific to the child’s language—and explain what errors the student made, why the student didn’t qualify and, most important, how the teacher and family can support the student.

Here’s what this process looks like.

“Hi, Mrs. Jones. Thank you so much for referring Jose for an evaluation. I know you’re concerned because he is making errors in speech production, so I wanted to sit down and go over the results of the evaluation with you. I administered the Bilingual Articulation and Phonology Test and here are some of your students’ responses. Your student did not make errors on the Spanish portion of the test.”

speech test results

(Click for full size)

“In English, he substituted a [d] for [v] at the end of a word. In Spanish you cannot have a [v] in final position but you can have a [d], so this error is okay.”

“He substituted ‘ch’ [tʃ] for ‘j’ [dʒ]. The ‘j’ sound does not exist in Spanish so he substituted the closest Spanish sound.” This is typical for children of his language background.

“He reduced a cluster at the end of the word ‘elephant.’ In Spanish, consonant clusters are not allowed at the end of words so it is common for English language-learners to reduce word final clusters.”

“Finally, he substituted ‘d’ for the voiced ‘th,’ which is not a sound that exists in Spanish. This is also a normal process.”

“So all of these errors are influenced by the sound system of Spanish. They are normal in the course of developing a second language and your student should learn the new sounds with exposure to English.”

Below, I list some techniques we can share with teachers to help their students more quickly pick up the sounds unique to English:

  • Highlight the differences between the sound the child uses and the target sound in English. For example, ‘ch’ and ‘j’ are made the same way—except that one includes voice and the other doesn’t. Encourage students to practice making one sound and then the other so they learn the distinction.
  • Show your student how to place the articulators for sounds new to him. Using a mirror helps the student see himself match your model.
  • Ask the student to practice the sound by itself, then in words, then in phrases.
  • Give visual cues, such as movement for long sounds like ‘sh.’
  • Pick a similar sound in your student’s native language and show them how that sound differs from the English sound.

However, as SLPs well know, it’s also possible to see both types of errors—language-influenced errors and errors suggesting speech impairment. In this case, the SLP sets goals for both the shared sounds and the sounds unique to the native language, while the ESL teacher works on the sounds unique to English. A little something for everyone!

As you can see, the framework is simple. Finding information about different languages usually generates the most challenging part of this process. Here are some of our favorite resources:

Ellen Stubbe Kester, PhD, CCC-SLP, is president and founder of Bilinguistics, a private practice serving children from diverse backgrounds throughout Texas. Kester also teaches workshops on treating bilingual children, and co-chairs the Task Force on Cultural and Linguistic Diversity for the Texas Speech-Language-Hearing Association. ellen.kester@bilinguistics.com

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Kimberly Camp Zoubek May 25, 2017 - 12:18 pm


This was incredibly helpful. I am an SLP who specializes in language and literacy disorders/differences such as Dyslexia and ADHD. I currently volunteer and help out at a dual language school (50% Spanish instruction and 50% English instruction). 50% of the population is on free or reduced lunch programs and cannot afford to pay for private literacy treatment or enrichment. I work pro-bono with these families.

In Kgn, they receive all of their literacy instruction in their dominant language. Because I am not bi-lingual, this has been challenging for me to assess and treat these kids effectively.

Are you familiar with learning by Design and Spell-Links prescriptive assessment and treatment for kids with learning differences? It is incredible. I am in the process of finishing my certification and am working with a couple of bi-lingual students to complete my training.

Unfortunately, at this point Spell-links is not offered in Spanish. I would like to become more proficient in the differences between Spanish and English so I can better serve this population.

In your opinion, is there anything else I should be doing? And do you have any recommendations for me?

Thank you for the incredible, well thought out article. I love how you gave real life examples!

Kim Zoubek MS/CCC-SLP
Boulder, CO 80303

Ellen Kester May 26, 2017 - 2:03 pm

Hi Kim,

I am so glad you enjoyed the article. It sounds like you are doing some great work.

I am not familiar with the two programs you mentioned but I will explore them. Thanks for sharing that information.

As far as becoming more proficient in the differences between English and Spanish, be sure to check out the resources I mentioned in the post. The DOD book has a thorough chapter on it. We also have a few online courses on our website at Bilinguistics that address speech differences and language differences, and we have an E-book loaded with developmental norms for English-Spanish bilinguals.

Thanks for your kind comments!

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