Delay versus Divergence: EAL & Speech and Language Needs

How do you tell if an EAL pupil has Speech and Language Needs?

Your job is not to diagnose, but it is to flag up problems. Of course, knowing what is a problem is more difficult with a pupil learning English as an Additional Language. Here is a brief overview of considerations when suspecting Speech and Language Needs in an EAL pupil.

What is meant by ‘Speech and Language Needs’?

Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN) are a heterogeneous collection of problems that need a medically based diagnostic process to ascertain. Teachers of SLCN pupils MUST have professional input when designing any kind of pedagogical differentiation in their classroom or subject (Speech and Language Therapist, Educational Psychologist, Occupational Therapist, Paediatric Consultant) and should be doing so within a feedback loop with the SENCo (assess, plan, do review).

The EAL & Speech and Language Crossover

Diagnosing EAL pupils is difficult because of two reasons:

a) the normal process of a bilingual pupil acquiring another language can mimic the pathology of a monolingual pupil who has similar deficiencies (but in their native language);

b) the EAL pupil’s lack of familiarity with ‘normal’ social situations in the new country or language may be misinterpreted as pragmatic language difficulties—or processing in general.

This can mean that EAL pupils, who are normally acquiring a new language and set of social customs, can be misdiagnosed as having SLCN, while those who REALLY DO have an SEN often do not get any treatment because all problems are assumed to stem from acquiring English.

As with teaching any child, context is crucial. However, in the case of a bilingual or multilingual pupil, knowing something about the grammar, language features and social customs of the pupil’s background is absolutely paramount. Also necessary to know are the strengths and weaknesses of the various languages that pupil may speak as well as some detail of any trauma experienced by the pupil.

Remember: the process of immigration itself can be traumatic enough and must be taken into account before suspecting SEN.  

So back to SCLN. What is it? 

‘Speech’ refers to problems with the mechanical production of speech (for example: stuttering/dysfluency or misalignment of the jaw/dysarthria). These may be induced by an overall neurological condition such as cerebral palsy which affects the muscles of the jaw, tongue and throat or cleft palate issues.  Swallowing, feeding, chewing, clearing mucus from the soft palate and related structures can all be problematic.

‘Language’ refers to processing difficulties, i.e., the cognitive aspects of language. Expressive difficulties include finding words, processing words and word parts (phonemes), semantic difficulties, i.e., being unable to understand and apply the grammar systems of one’s native language; and there are receptive difficulties, i.e., being unable to understand or interpret heard or read language. There are other areas, but these are the larger categories.

‘Communication’ refers to pragmatic difficulties, i.e., how language is used in communication with others and within a particular context. Non-verbal communication and inference is covered here as well.

‘Needs’ refers to a greater need than most children and a barrier to learning which requires specific medical and pedagogical input to remediate.

Co-morbidity or Co-occurance

Within these brief descriptions, you can see that, even in monolingual pupils, ‘language’ problems may border on specific learning difficulties. For example, a pupil that cannot blend or extract phonemes, i.e., sound out each letter before blending them or distinguishing between the first and last sounds of a word, can present as being dyslexic.

Equally, ‘communication’ problems, where pupils are unable to participate appropriately in conversations because they cannot interpret non-verbal cues, might be mistaken for autistic spectrum disorder. Indeed, differentiating between pragmatic language disorder and autism is a subject of great debate among interested professionals.

‘Need’ also has its pitfalls as special educational needs (SEN) are not the same as additional educational needs (AEN). AEN will encompass bilingual language needs or medical needs such as staff awareness of a life-threatening nut allergy and epipen use.

So, why is background and context so important for EAl pupils?

Clearly, extra complications arise in trying to differentially diagnose, say, a traumatised refugee child who speaks the language of a persecuted minority and has never been educated in the nationally sanctioned language; or the son of a military family who has never settled long enough in any educational system to learn full grammar and literacy skills in the three European languages he speaks; or the well-educated child who is so distraught at immigrating away from part of his family while his father finds work and housing that he develops a stutter and explosive behavioural problems. These are common background stories which would elucidate language acquisition issues presenting as learning needs. Truly, these pupils do have additional needs–but probably not ‘special educational’ ones.

What is ‘normal’ language acquisition?

Normally developing language acquisition is never a straight line from A to B. Indeed, language acquisition is an uneven and contextually dependent process. Child A may feel very isolated in the classroom and unable to respond to a teacher within the short, rehearsed tasks expected in a ‘learning’ environment; however, Child A may have unusually good social skills in an unstructured, play environment and is seen communicating (face, eyes, gesture, tone, short mixed-language phrases) with a multitude of new friends at playtime.

Such a child, who finds a multi-modal way to communicate within a familiar experience, for example, in organising a quick game of football or tag, may not concern you as to their eventual ability to develop English and learn the social norms of interaction in your educational system, even if they are slow to learn to speak.

When should you be concerned about an EAL child’s language development? What would signpost a speech and language need in a child learning English?

Again, context is important. Frederickson and Cline (2009) talk about in ‘interactional analysis’ of SEN wherein the potential level of need is viewed as the complex interplay of the child’s ‘strengths and weaknesses, the level of support available and the appropriateness of the education being provided’. (Frederickson and Cline, 2009, p44) Let’s examine those interacting factors.

The Child

Communicative competence is driven by the social expectations of the situation, but it also depends on the child’s experience. A native child who has never been to a library or the theatre will be unfamiliar with the behavioural norms of those places. Behaviour that is wildly opposite to expectations, i.e., talking loudly, shouting out, clapping randomly, may lead some people to assume that the child has special needs, because libraries and theatres are assumed to be a ‘normal’ part of an acquired and universally practiced social repertoire.

It is the same with classrooms. Seating plans, raising hands to speak, taking equipment out and putting it away all on some sort of universally understood and agreed-to cue, may appear meaningless and random to a child who has had no school experience or a different school experience. The above also expects that whatever relevant experience the child has had, he or she will be oriented enough to able to independently marshal appropriate language skills, learn from the social cues around them and start to use a bit of English; a tall order for anyone!

The home curriculum may also be different for an immigrant child. In many countries, young children are supposed to help with cleaning, food prep, cooking or looking after even younger siblings. The household does not fit itself to the child’s schedule; household chores which support the entire family cannot be put aside. Play may be different. Children may have objects which are not traditional ‘toys’ recognised by the school curriculum, i.e., building blocks, magnetic letters, books. Toys may be homemade and may mimic useful items of the home curriculum: baskets, cloth bags, musical instruments or religious festival objects.

What happens if the child is homesick or has been traumatised through separation from a main carer and a large extended family? What if the child has witnessed atrocities or worried whether family members are still alive? Even if there is no obvious trauma, language immersion alone is exhausting for anybody. Unfamiliar food, weather, surroundings, music, housing will all contribute to a child’s difficulty in developing or appearing to have communicative competence.

The Classroom

Part of judging whether a child is acquiring English normally, is whether their classroom enables them to make progress. Classrooms are, at base, a set of recognisable routines in which children are trained. This is true of secondary or primary. Obvious, well-cued, regular routines are essential for all children and even more so for immigrant EAL children. These clear expectations and predictable routines are important to settling a child into a communicative practice where the child can begin to associate new language structures with actions and events and thus communicate in context.

Frederickson and Cline (2009, p49) point out that the classroom is a ‘unique context that requires special language and interactive skills’. Children may or may not have learned some of these patterns in home and community settings, for example, whether they have been at home with mainly familial carers or whether they have attended a structured playgroup or previous school. As they point out, ‘whether children are judged to have adequate levels of communicative competence in the classroom will depend both on the opportunities which they have had to develop relevant skills in other contexts and on how classroom events are organised to enable or disable their participation’ (2009, p49).

Many European countries do not start schooling until a child is seven years old. Young immigrant children who would not have started schooling in their own countries may not have developed the particular set of social skills needed to be competent in a UK reception class and may present as ‘immature’ or ‘badly behaved’ in that setting. Parents may not even be aware that they are expected to enroll their 4.5-year old for a school place!

Strategies for Assessing the Bilingual Child & SLCN

First of all, a delay on a broadly normal path is not the same as a divergence from it. EAL pupils will have a delay while they are acclimating to a new environment, home and school routine. Actually, the number of things they are acclimating to may be well beyond what the school is aware of and takes time.

There may be up to a 6-month silent period where pupils do not talk or interact much. You may notice them observing others intently in classes or just sitting at the edge of the playground, people watching. They will be internally comparing their language sounds with English. An EAL specialist may have assessed their language skills and started teaching ‘survival’ English or there may not be a specialist available.

EAL pupils will generally start to use whatever English they can starting with single-word greetings and indicating basic requests, like for the toilet or food. Within a classroom, they should start to pick up and follow task instructions, if those are regular and coupled with an action, like ‘open your books’, ‘get a pencil’, ‘use your ruler’, etc, but may not be able to respond verbally yet.

This may happen within a few weeks, a half-term or a term. It may take longer. It depends on how adept the pupil is at transferring previous skills to their new situation and whether those previous skills are applicable to an institutional setting. It also depends on whether classrooms are organised, supportive and accessible enough to allow the student to do so.

Looking at Home Language Strengths and Weaknesses

Assessing a pupil’s home language competence has many aspects of which to be cognizant. The child’s pattern of language use needs to be explored and, if multilingual, which language is used for which context. For example, if the student is from the Bulgaria/Turkey border region, he may be more comfortable using Bulgarian for social and family interaction, but educated in Turkish. Personal or emotional topics will be processed in Bulgarian but academic concepts may be processed in Turkish. Assessing his academic ability using Bulgarian or pragmatic skills using Turkish may not give a true picture of communicative competence.  

You may be told by a Congolese mother that her child definitely speaks French because that language has higher status. Yet, when you get a European French speaker to do a first language interview, the child doesn’t seem to understand continental French; however, she responds to the Lingala/French dialect spoken by one of your 6th Formers. Is the conclusion that the child has a learning disorder in her home language?

In a community where code-switching (the mixing of home language and English) is the norm, does a child who cannot code-switch according to social situation have a pragmatic disorder? Or is the code-switching itself judged as a lower form of language literacy? Language competence needs continuous contextualisation to be ‘read’ correctly.

Cline and Frederickson assert that an overview of a child’s language competences in the various realms of use needs to be fully explored before suspecting that a child may have a special and not an additional need. Part of this is the interrogation of family members and classroom teachers, using a structured set of questions.

To this end, they mention the Pragmatics Profile of Everyday Communication Skills in Children (Dewart and Summers 1995).

This has separate sections concerning:

  • A range of communicative functions that children may express, such as requests for an object or for information;
  • The way they react and respond to communication from others;
  • The way they interact with other people and participate in conversation;
  • The way their communication varies depending on context.

This assessment has a detailed manual that explains how to use it with bilingual pupils and where its construct validity with that cohort lies.

Know Your Students

‘Know your students’. We have all heard that as teachers and it certainly contributes to a great classroom experience where students’ strengths are built upon and weaknesses are accommodated. But for a bilingual pupil, it is superlative to properly contextualise that student’s abilities. It may be the difference between an EAL child that acclimates, catches up and excels or one who is stuck in the bottom classes perceived to have a special need and falling ever further behind.

Note I have not outlined the definite steps needed to diagnose a child, but have given you some contexts to think through before alerting the SEND department that a student may have more than a language need. Because even if you do alert them, they may not have access to an NHS professional that can apply a medical assessment. It may be a question of accumulating observational and contextualised evidence and building a case for access to those scarce resources. Conversely, it may be using that evidence to get the EAL pupil OFF their SEND radar when that student has been too quickly judged as diverging from a broadly normal acquisition path.

The more you know about a pupil’s communicative competences in their various contexts, their history and cultural/language background, the better you will be able to see any deficiencies in context and to differentiate delay from divergence.