Immigrant children misdiagnosed as language-impaired

08/24/05

Immigrant children still mastering the English language risk being shuffled into special education services they don't need, because of errors in assessment for speech problems, according to a new University of Alberta study.

The study showed that the expressive language characteristics of typically developing children learning English as a second language are similar to the English spoken by monolingual children who have specific language impairment. "The errors they make when they speak English are nearly identical to the errors children make when they are language-impaired," said Dr. Johanne Paradis, a linguistics professor at the University of Alberta.

The study appears in the July, 2005 edition of Language, Speech & Hearing Services in Schools.

In studying 24 children aged four to seven who have been learning English as a second language for an average of 9.5 months, Dr. Paradis discovered that their accuracy rates and error patterns were similar to those reported in monolingual children who had been diagnosed with speech language impairment. The children were tested in their usage of verbs, prepositions and determiner words like 'a' and 'the'.

"The existing similarities, along with large individual differences in how quickly children learn English, could result in misdiagnosis and therefore be a cause of unnecessary referrals to speech therapy services," Dr. Paradis said. This phenomenon could be part of a larger problem that has been widely acknowledged in the United States that linguistic minority children are statistically over-represented in all areas of special education," said Dr. Paradis.

This overlap in linguistic characteristics between English second language children and language-impaired children is an issue for many countries: Canada, the U.S.A., the United Kingdom and Australia."

And while it may appear beneficial to have immigrant children enrolled for focused linguistic attention by receiving therapy services, the youngsters may suffer stigmatization, Paradis said. "Their parents may believe there is something wrong with the child. And receiving special education services can colour a child's education future and self-esteem."

Nor is it a good use of scarce resources for special education, Dr. Paradis noted. "The services need to be there for the children who really need them."

The method of language testing for immigrant children must be changed, Dr. Paradis added. "The use of English standardized tests with non-native English-speakers is not a good practice. You can't uncritically use tests developed for native speakers with kids who have been exposed to English for just one year." As part of the study, the children were administered a standardized test for language development, and nearly all of them scored as if they were language-impaired.

Young children learning English can be expected to make grammatical errors, well into the second year of their experience speaking the language, and more appropriate expectations need to be set when assessing the youngsters, Paradis said. She suggested that instead of comparing their skills to those of monolingual English-speaking children, they be compared to the skills of their peers; other youngsters who are also learning English as a second language.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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