5. How do you determine if a child is experiencing a language delay? What do you do in that case?

According to Roseberry-McKibbin (2002), to assess a true language delay or disorder, both the native and second languages must be evaluated, with particular attention to the learner’s performance in the native language. If there are language delays, the difficulties will be apparent in the native language as well as the second language, and they will be apparent in a variety of settings other than the school (e.g., at home and in the community) and with communication partners other than the teacher (e.g., family members and peers).

Some of the indicators of language delay that Roseberry-McKibbin (2002, pp. 221-222) recommends looking for are as follows:

  • Difficulty learning language (especially the native language) at a normal rate, even with special assistance
  • Deficits in vocabulary (especially in the native language)
  • Communication difficulties at home and in interaction with peers from a similar background
  • Family history of special education and learning difficulties
  • Slower language development than siblings as reported by parents
  • Over-reliance on gestures rather than speech (in the native language)
  • Need for frequent repetition and prompts (especially in the native language) during instruction

Children with language delays should not be excluded from the TWI program unless their primary language is seriously restricted and the teacher and speech pathologist conclude that the student’s native language needs to be strengthened prior to the introduction of a second language. As Genesee, Paradis, and Crago (2004, pp. 212) note,

“Parents and professionals alike should not have stereotyped assumptions about the value of bilingualism for children and about children’s capacity to learn two languages. We know that in appropriate circumstances, children, even those with language impairment, have the capacity to learn two languages. Professionals and parents need to assess whether the circumstances that a given child is in are conducive to dual language learning. They should never automatically assume that having two languages is the exclusive domain of children with typical development.”

In any case, English language learners with language delays cannot be prevented from having to deal with two languages since they are naturally exposed to both; therefore, it is better for them to do so with the support and guidance of teachers and parents who can help them generalize new linguistic behaviors across their two language environments (Cloud, 2002, p. 122).  For example, a native-Spanish-speaking child with language delay could be taught to describe objects and actions in both Spanish and English. The reality of bilingual learners’ experience is that they must cross linguistic boundaries. Teachers and parents should assist them to do so.

Once a child in a TWI program is identified as language delayed/disordered, how should mandated speech and language services be provided?  It is generally best for the speech pathologist to “push in” to the TWI classroom and provide support directly to the student in the instructional setting of the classroom, and indirectly by helping the TWI teachers understand how to support the child’s communicative attempts in both languages.

For more information on identifying students with language disorders, see Response #1 in the section “Supporting Special Student Populations.”