Serving ELL Students: A 36-Year Perspective from a Monolingual SLP

  • March 12, 2007
  • Henriette Langdon

This month I had the privilege of interviewing Sharen Valles, Speech and Language Pathologist, who has 36 years experience working with students in a school district situated in the Bay Area of California. My interview was centered on finding out about changes in service delivery to students in general and in particular ELL students over the last thirty years. The interview ended with words of wisdom to clinicians who are faced with increasing caseloads of ELL students.

Sharen began her career in 1971 working in one district and then moving on to another district where she has been employed since 1972. Sharon’s first assignment in her current district was to serve students at a high school and at a middle school. Her caseload was 120 students and she had to write Individual Learning Plan (ILP) for each student as required by the district. The proposed plans had to be approved by the parents but the documents were not as lengthy as the current IEPs.  Sharen commented that her high school principal did not allow her to conduct her therapy in a separate room. Instead, she had to serve all students including those who had a voice or a fluency problem in the regular classroom. “This was very difficult for both the therapist and the student because the student felt embarrassed,” she stated.  Sharen’s caseload slowly decreased to include only 80 students as a result of lobbying efforts from the state speech-language association.

Sharen’s school district has always served students from low-income homes including a number of ELL students. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, students who came from Spanish-speaking homes attended various types of bilingual Spanish-English programs that were available in the district. In those days, there were sufficient monies to hire a Spanish-speaking paraprofessional who could assist the SLP in conducting assessments to determine if the student’s performance difficulties were related to a language difference or a language disorder. However, services for students who spoke other languages than Spanish were limited to the traditional English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, and this is still the case thirty years later. The number ELL students who speak Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), Indian (Punjabi) Tagalog, Arabic or Vietnamese as their primary language has steadily increased in the last 15 years.

Sharen speaks only English even though her last name is Hispanic, which is her married name.  When she was completing her training, issues related to assessment and intervention of speakers whose native language was not English were scarcely addressed. However, from the start of her career, Sharen believed that it was important to assess her ELL students’ and at that time they were referred to by many other acronyms such as NEP (non-English Proficient), LEP (limited English proficient) competence in their primary language in addition to English. Even though tests in other languages than Spanish continue to be scarce, Sharen sought other ways to assess her students using protocols suggested for non-discriminatory assessments. For example, she made a concerted effort to know the families of the students attending the schools where she was delivering her services. She tried to participate in the activities of the schools which included Little League games, various community events that were geared to involve parents and the school to gather a better sense of families’ communication patterns and expectations for their children.

In the early stages of Sharen’s career, very few outlined procedures were available to clinicians to assist them in assessing ELL students in an equitable manner. Sharen made an effort to increase her knowledge on how to best serve this population by attending seminars and by reading about best strategies to assess and work with ELL students. In the beginning, it was easier for her to have access to school personnel who spoke Spanish because her schools had various bilingual Spanish-English programs. She could collaborate more readily with a teacher or paraprofessional to interview families to determine the student’s proficiency in Spanish and to assess them by analyzing their communication in collecting and analyzing a language sample. Today, the number of school personnel proficient in Spanish has decreased because there are no longer as many bilingual Spanish-English programs in California following Proposition 227 which passed in 1997.  However, Sharen makes a concerted effort to seek assistance from bilingual personnel in her school setting when needing to assess her ELL students’ proficiency in their primary language, whether Spanish or any other language.

In evaluating an ELL student, Sharen collaborates with a bilingual person in the student’s target language to interview the parent(s) about the student’s health, development and progress over time in the language used at home. The bilingual interviewer may be a professional, paraprofessional or a parent. However, she makes sure that this person is adequately prepared for the job and she spends time training her interpreter for the job that needs to be performed. In addition, she relies on observations of the student in the classroom and she dialogues with the classroom teacher to determine if the student is performing differently compared to other students who are ELL learners and who have similar experiences and exposure to English.

Sharen, a monolingual SLP with 36 years of experience working in a school district situated in Northern California provides us with the following advice regarding serving ELL students:

  • Try to “get rid” of your cultural/linguistic biases, and become as objective as you can be. “Take a step away from your own culture” to understand others, and how they view the world.
  • Become involved in your school’s community. Try to attend outside school events where your schools’ students are likely to participate.
  • Identify school and community personnel who are bilingual in the students’ primary language. Get to know them and collaborate with them so that they may assist you in assessing students whose language is other than English.
  • Involve parents in all phases of the assessment and intervention process. This appears to be an overwhelming task. Seek the collaboration of your school team members who speak the language of your students.
  • Invite parents to your sessions if they have the time.
  • Communicate with parents about what you are doing in your therapy. Sharen just received a grant to fund the purchase of cameras. She is planning on taking pictures of the students performing various activities during the therapy sessions and asking parents to take pictures of the students at home using the camera. The ongoing project will consist of encouraging the students to talk about the pictures taken at home and at school. A binder with all pictures and activities will be compiled so that students and their families can view them and talk about them.
  • Attend CEU opportunities that address issues regarding assessment and treatment of ELL students.
  • Participate in specialized conferences that address the needs of ELL students such as the National Association of Bilingual Educators (NABE) or Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).
  • Read articles on this topic in journals and/or refer to specialized books. Consult the Internet, but be selective!

The bottom line is: “Being monolingual does not constitute an excuse to not being able to serve ELL students adequately. Furthermore, even if you are bilingual, trilingual or proficient in several languages, you will confront similar challenges because the language that you know may not match that of the student.”

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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