Diagnosing Communication Disorders in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students
The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education (ERIC EC)
ERIC EC Digest #E650
Author: Catherine Crowley
The disproportionate referral of bilingual and culturally diverse students to special education and related services is a pressing challenge in public school systems. Not only are unnecessary services a drain on resources, but they are harmful to children, taking them away from the classroom and inevitably stigmatizing them. In addition, an incorrect diagnosis may mean that a child does not receive the services he or she does need.
Accurate assessment of culturally and linguistically diverse students is difficult in any area. Assessing the speech and language skills of these students is even more challenging. The evaluator must make the crucial differential diagnosis between a communication disorder and something else. This "something else" could have a cultural basis, such as a mismatch between demands of school and home, or a linguistic basis, such as evidence of the normal process of second language acquisition or speaking a non-standard dialect of English. This digest describes the current preferred practice in the assessment of communication disorders in culturally and linguistically diverse students.
What qualifies as a communication disorder?
For any student, communication skills are disordered if they deviate sufficiently from the norms and expectations of the student's speech community.
The challenge with culturally and linguistically diverse students is that many of the traditional assessment tools and benchmarks are not based upon their speech communities. Instead, they generally are based upon the "mainstream" or "standard" dialect of American English, known as "Standard American English" (SAE). (This dialect is often identified as the one spoken by newscasters or in educational settings.) While it is critical that students acquire this dialect, evaluators cannot identify students with a communication disorder because they speak a different dialect.
Why not use test scores to identify a communication disorder?
The limitations of speech and language tests in accurately discriminating typical and impaired language speakers of SAE are widely known (McCauley & Swisher, 1984). So, before reporting any test scores, the evaluator analyzes the test's quality and applicability. To do this, the evaluator considers:
An analysis of the quality and applicability of currently available tests reveals that none meets acceptable standards (McCauley & Swisher, 1984). The use of scores derived from such tests causes inaccurate identification of students with communication disorders, which has "serious" "social consequences" (Plante & Vance, 1994, p. 21).
With English language learners, the use of translated versions of speech and language tests pose even greater problems. For example, many translations provide word-for-word translations which do not account for a lack of equivalent linguistic forms in the second language. Additionally, translated tests do not consider the effects of second language acquisition on a student's performance. As a result, scores from these translated versions should not be used to diagnose a communication disorder.
How does the evaluator determine whether a student has a communication disorder?
Before deciding whether a communication disorder exists, the evaluator first accumulates a good deal of information about the student's communication skills. The evaluator approaches this phase as both an anthropologist and a detective. Critical information includes:
How does the evaluator analyze the information?
After all the critical information is gathered, the evaluator analyzes a number of factors to determine whether any apparent difficulties are due to a true communication disorder or to something else-such as a communication difference or a lack of prior exposure. To make this differential diagnosis, the evaluator applies available research on the norms of a student's speech community. Often the research is limited. The evaluator applies his/her own knowledge base, and may enlist the help of someone who knows the student's linguistic and cultural background and who can, with proper training, provide valuable information on these critical factors:
In the end, the evaluator analyzes the data to determine
Culturally diverse: Describes an individual or group that is exposed to, and/or immersed in, more than one set of cultural beliefs, values, and attitudes.
Dialect: Describes a variety of a language. Dialects are seen as applicable to all languages and all speakers. All languages are analyzed into a range of dialects, which reflect the regional and social background of their speakers.
Linguistically diverse: Describes an individual or group that is exposed to, and/or immersed in, more than one language or dialect.
Speech community: A group of people who share at least one speech variety in common. Members of bilingual/bidialectal communities often have access to more than one speech variety. The selection of the specific variety depends upon such variables as the participants, the topic, the function, and the location of the speech event.
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ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education. (2000). Assessment of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students for Special Education Eligibility (ERIC EC Digest #E604). Arlington, VA: Author.
Heath, S.B. (1982). What no bedtime story means: Narrative skills at home and school. Language in Society (Vol. II). New York: Cambridge, pp. 49-6.
McCauley, R.J. & Swisher, L. (1984). Psychometric review of language and articulation tests for preschool children. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 49, 34-42.
Plante, E. & Vance, R. (1994). Selection of preschool language tests: A data-based approach. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 25, 15-24.
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ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education