Language of Intervention for ELL Students with Various Language/Communicative Impairments

  • January 9, 2006
  • Henriette Langdon

Happy New Year 2006! ¡Feliz Año Nuevo 2006! Bonne Nouvelle Annee! Dobrego Nowego Roku!

I wish you all a Healthy & Happy New Year using all the languages of the world!!

The December edition of ¿Qué Tal?  provided an alphabetical list of some important concepts about bilingualism and bilingual education.

I thought that it would be a good idea to begin the New Year by responding to readers’ questions on selected topics. I asked you to post your questions on the topic of this month’s column. I received several questions and will respond to only two this month due to lack of space. Because the topic is so important, I will respond to additional questions in the FEBRUARY 2006  ¿Qué Tal? Column. The topic relates to the choice of language of intervention for ELL students who have various language and communication impairments.

SLPs, consult with other educators, professionals from various disciplines, and families on various speech, language and communication impairments. It is somewhat easier to provide recommendations when the student is monolingual-English because there is a larger research base that provides support for recommendations, and because the language of the home matches the language of the community at large including educational system. Providing appropriate recommendation for students who speak another language than English is much more complex.

In planning which language(s) should be used in working with students with language impairments who also speak another language, a number of variables need to be considered such as:

  1. The student’s and family’s proficiency levels in L1 (primary language) compared to L2 (English in this case);
  2. The nature and severity of the communication impairment;
  3. The age of the student;
  4. The availability of professionals who can deliver specialized services in the student’s primary language; and,
  5. The fact that there are relatively few research studies that tap into these very complex questions.

Thus, each case needs to be considered individually and strategies that are known to promote bilingual language development should be considered.

A clinician from San Diego writes a two part–question:

  1. “What would you suggest to parents of a four and half year old child, who is demonstrating symptoms that are congruent with ASD and they want their child to be in a bilingual classroom to learn Spanish?”  The child is a primary English-speaker and the parents are bilingual; however they tend to use primarily English in the home.
  2. I’ll take that question even further and ask what research is out there regarding bilingual children on the Autism Spectrum as to their success in bilingual development and types of programs that have been successful. 

1. The following considerations in planning the best program possible for this child diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder or ASD should be made:

  1. The fact that the child is primarily English-speaking does not imply that he /she does not understand Spanish since the family speaks both languages;
  2. The family clearly wishes for the child to be able to communicate to some degree, even to understand Spanish (when visiting with relatives who might only speak Spanish); and,
  3. There are always skills in one language that can transfer to the other. In this case, if the child learns how to relate to an English-speaking peer, he/she will transfer those skills in relating to a Spanish-speaking child if given sufficient practice and input in the language. Thus, there is no reason why this child should not attend a bilingual program. However, careful planning should be made in providing similar opportunities to learn various language-based and communication skills in the two languages. Also, the parents may be advised to speak Spanish outside the home to enhance skills in that language.

2. ASD is a very broad category as it includes children with varying linguistic and cognitive abilities. I don’t know of any research on this topic as it relates to bilingual students/clients other than referring to my own clinical experience. A three-year-old from a bilingual English-French background assessed on the autistic spectrum whose parents were are fluent in both languages was assessed as more verbal in French. If we believe in two fundamental principles:

  1. Parents should communicate in the language in which they feel most comfortable with their child, and,
  2. That skills acquired in one language transfer onto another, we should never counsel parents to switch to the majority language thinking that “ more English” will confuse the child-less and will be beneficial because there will be more input of one language. “Quantity does not make up for quality.” That is, more English does not translate into faster or more efficient learning. Instead, parents should be advised to use specific strategies while communicating with their children in their language of preference. Language is so linked to emotion and self-concept that we do a disservice in advising families to stop using the language that comes directly from their heart. A recent case study by Diehl, Ford & Federico (2005) describes a longitudinal case of José, a child with an ASD diagnosis, who came from a bilingual Spanish-English home, José was followed from preschool until age 11. Initially, therapy was attempted in Spanish but José did not respond as well as he did respond in English. Even though all interventions were carried in English, his family continued to converse with him in both languages. At this time, José understands some basic commands in Spanish only and uses a couple of words in the language only. Even though the case study does not describe how the two languages were used in the home, José made significant gains in both did social and academic development. The authors indicate that perhaps they could have introduced José to more reading in Spanish and this would have assisted in his gaining greater competence in the language. There is no question, that further research on bilingual children who are on the ASD spectrum is necessary.

A clinician from Chicago writes:
“What information can be offered to parents who are convinced that learning English is the only way for academic success?”

Academic success is the result of multiple interconnecting variables. Clearly. mastery of English or the majority language is an important factor. However, knowing and learning or being exposed to Spanish or any another language does not prevent the student from succeeding academically in English. Research states that many bilingual students who are enrolled in well-designed bilingual programs can succeed academically with equal and sometimes greater success than their monolingual peers.

Research conducted by Thomas and Collier (1997; 2002) comparing various models of bilingual instruction over a period of 4 to 8 years indicated that the most effective programs included four main characteristics: (1) the status of each language was equal; (2) parents were involved ;(3) instructional approaches included strategies that emphasized whole language, language scaffolding for content areas and cooperative activities and, (4) lasted for six years at least.

Best outcomes were reached when students had been schooled in their own language for at least two or three years because they required only five to seven years to reach the 50th percentile performance on standardized tests in English compared to those students who had not receive any instruction in their native language. Students who had not been schooled in their native language required seven to 10 years to attain the same level 50th percentile performance level.

  • Diehl, S., Ford, C., & Federico, J. (2005). The communication journey of a fully included child with an autism spectrum disorder. Topics of Language Disorders, 25, 375-387.
  • Kohnert, K., (2005). Intervention with bilingual children and adults with primary language impairments. Short Course. ASHA- San Diego (November 2005).
  • Kohnert, K., & Derr, A. (2004). Language intervention with bilingual children. In B. A. Goldstein (Ed.). Bilingual language development and disorders in Spanish-English speakers. (pp.311-338). Baltimore: Brookes Publishing Co.
  • Thomas, W. & Collier, V (1997). School effectiveness for language minority students (NCBE Resource collection Series No.9), Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for bilingual Education.
  • Thomas, W. & Collier, V (2002). A national study of school effectiveness for language minority students’ long-term academic achievement. Santa Cruz. CA: Center for Research on Education, Diversity  & Excellence. Retrieved February 5, 2003 from

As always, I do welcome your comments.

Henriette W. Langdon, Ed.D., F-CCC-SLP
Communicative Disorders & Sciences
College of Education
San José State University
San José, CA 95192-0079
408-924-4019 voice
408-924-3641 fax

Gracias – Thank you.

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