Sunday, June 12, 2011

Language Struggles or Learning Disability?

As an ESL professional, it is important to be aware that many of my students may be wrongly referred to special or remedial educational services because of normal second language acquisition-associated phenomena (SLAAP) that appear to be learning disabilities. We must not only ask ourselves how we can systematically prevent this, but what we can do in our own classrooms to differentiate between SLAAP and learning disabilities.
According to Brown (2004), educators and administrators must work together at all levels of the system to bring about the necessary changes that will prevent culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students from being mis-referred and mis-diagnosed with “learning disabilities” which are more likely SLAAP. Mainstream teachers and administrators likely think that standard measures for diagnosing learning disabilities in native students are still accurate and reliable even when used with non-native students (Brown, 2004, p. 228). 
However, one must consider that these tests carry not only a language bias (any test in English is to some extent testing the student's knowledge of the language, even if that is not the intent), but also a cultural bias, since CLD students do not have the same background or cultural references as native speakers of the same age. Even simple observation and anecdotal notes could carry the same bias (albeit unintentional) if the observer is not familiar with the student's native culture. It is clear that in order to accomplish systematic change, school districts and university teacher education programs need to offer opportunities for their employees and students to learn to differentiate between true learning disabilities and SLAAP.
What I found myself asking after reading these articles was what I could to to combat the process if I felt one of my students was being inappropriately referred to special education. This is another one of those areas where portfolio assessment can come in handy. If you have a clear record of the student's progress while s/he has been under your supervision, then you have a clear map to lay out before someone else. 
You can point out specific areas which you know are SLAAP that may be mistaken for deficiencies by someone who is not familiar with SLA processes. You might perhaps have a sample of the student's writing in their L1 that has been reviewed and analyzed by an interpreter, to prove that the student is on grade level in his or her L1. Also, you can compare the portfolio of the student in question with students of the same language, culture, and educational background. Furthermore, a portfolio should contain information about how long the student has been receiving English instruction, how long he or she was in school before coming to the US, and other relevant demographic information. 
According to Salend and Salinas (2003), all of the above considerations, as well as others, should be made when considering a LEP student for special educational services. As we have said time and again, we are advocates for our students, so it is our responsibility to maintain clear records that can be used for a variety of purposes.
A mainstream teacher can consult and collaborate with the ESL teacher to determine whether problems that have been noticed in the classroom are SLAAP or whether something deeper, like a learning disability, is going on. If both the mainstream and the ESL teacher agree that the difficulties exhibited by the student are SLAAP, then it is necessary to conduct tests in the student's native language to determine whether a learning disability exists.

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