The Challenges and Rewards of Working with English Language Learners

The percentage of the U.S. population born and raised speaking a language other than English is approaching the highest point in history. According to a 2018 report from the Migration Policy Institute, in 1890 14.8% of the US population were non-native English speakers from other counties. By 1970 that number had dropped to a low point of 4.7%, but by 2016 it had climbed back up to 13.5%. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) expects that by the 2030s English Language Learners (ELLs) will make up 40 percent of our nation’s school-aged population.

As speech language pathologists, we’re likely to encounter certain segments of the population where speech language disorders tend to be more prevalent. As autism diagnoses have exploded in the past 20 years, most of us have had occasion to work with kids on the autism spectrum. In fact, disordered verbal and nonverbal communication is one of the primary diagnostic criteria for autism according to ASHA. Working with someone on the Autism spectrum requires special skills in and of itself; skills that go beyond what we need to offer effective SLP therapy. The same holds true when working with someone learning the English language; we simply need to bring a little more in the way of patience and empathy to our interactions.

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How to Tell Normal ELL Behavior from Symptoms of an Actual Speech Disorder

When we talk about ELLs we’re usually referring to school-age children. Many of the same traits and behaviors considered normal for anyone learning a second language are also symptoms of speech-language disorders, opening the door for SLPs to potentially confuse one for the other. By the very nature of being non-native English speakers, ELLs often exhibit the following traits whether or not they’re actually dealing with a speech disorder:

  • Literal translations – ELLs often make literal translations between their first language and English, and these literal translations can cause errors in English that appear to be symptoms of an interference disorder
  • Silence – Also a symptom of several speech-language disorders, a silent period is normal for someone learning a new language who finds themselves in an environment where they can’t fall back on their native tongue. In fact, it is normal for relatively silent periods to last anywhere from a few weeks to a year depending on the individual’s age.
  • Code-Switching – This is when an ELL says one phrase in their native language, followed by a related phrase in English. While this is normal for someone who is bilingual, outside of the context of multilingualism this can also be a symptom of a receptive-expressive language disorder.
  • Pronunciation – Normal patterns of development for someone learning a second language often resemble an articulation disorder.

If your career plans involve frequently working with English language learners, you’ll need some additional training to be able to effectively identify an actual speech disorder from similar behaviors that are normal among those learning a second language.

Putting Best Evidence Into Practice

There are two major misconceptions that have been debunked with the best evidence available. It is now well understood that:

  • Being bilingual does not cause communication disorders, nor does prescribed monolingualism cure communication disorders.
  • Children with communication and developmental disorders can still learn more than one language, provided they have sufficient opportunity to do so.

As you might expect, children with speech-language disorders exhibit similar deficiencies in both languages they speak. Even something like stuttering – that many assume would be related to learning a second language – is not necessarily made worse by bilingualism.

By being cognizant of misconceptions about ELLs, and being aware of traits that might be confused for a speech-language disorder, SLPs can expect the same results with ELLs as they see when working with native English speakers.

The following are examples of best practices for SLPs working with ELLs. You will recognize these as many of the best practices you would use for native English speakers too:

  • Using multi-sensory instruction wherever possible
  • Using culturally familiar and relevant material
  • Using bilingual labels to identify objects
  • Encouraging speaking between the SLP and other students, and collaborative learning
  • Basing treatments on thematic curriculum units, when possible

Speech Language Pathologists Teaching ESL

We should distinguish SLPs who work with English language learners and SLPs who teach English as a second language (ESL), also commonly referred to as ELL teachers.

Both involve working with ELLs so there is some natural common ground, but it’s also important to point out that teaching – especially teaching a language – is an independent field in its own right with its own skills set. Teaching ESL involves pedagogical training that is not necessarily required for being an SLP.

A useful way to conceptualize this is to look at what skills are involved with being a general ESL teacher. A good ESL teacher is someone who:

  • Is interested in language and translation
  • Is highly knowledgeable about language grammar and structure
  • Is sociable, easy to talk to, patient, resourceful, and can build a genuine relationship with students
  • Understands their students’ cultural backgrounds
  • Has adequate training in secondary language acquisition techniques
  • Has a willingness to connect with their students’ communities
  • Encourages English language conversations and involvement outside the classroom

So for example, an SLP would naturally be patient. But an SLP might not have adequate training in secondary language acquisition.

To clarify this topic, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) released a position statement on SLPs teaching ESL with these key points:

  • SLPs who meet the standards to teach ESL can provide this service.
  • Each state, county, and city have their own requirements for how to become qualified to teach ESL. Because these may not be fulfilled by an SLP’s education, SLPs must check their local requirements to see if they qualify to serve as ESL teachers.
  • SLPs who do not meet their jurisdiction’s requirements to work as an ESL teacher should not do so, but can still collaborate with ESL teachers to offer SLP services.

If you’re an SLP you’ll likely need to gain extra skills to become qualified to teach ESL. However because of the growing importance of ESL, and similarly with autism, today many SLP master’s programs offer ESL tracks designed for SLPs who already know they want to specialize in this overlapping field.

Bilingual SLPs

As the number of ELL students grow, the demand for bilingual SLPs has skyrocketed.

Being a bilingual speech language pathologist does not necessarily mean you are an ESL teacher. But what it does mean is that you have the advantage of being able to provide ELLs with speech-language therapy in their native language. But the advantages don’t stop there:

  • When SLP therapy is provided solely in English, some ELL students may not be able to transfer those learned skills over to their first language. This creates the potential for difficulty applying those skills when communicating with family or other members of the community.
  • ELLs with language disabilities respond best to SLP intervention in their native language, and this literacy is then transferred to their learning of the English language.

Bilingual SLPs can also engage in specific treatment techniques and address certain issues that only someone who speaks both the student’s native language and English can do:

  • Bilingual intervention – SLPs can draw on examples from both languages to give attention to speech-language disorders that involve object classification and verb identification.
  • Cross linguistic intervention – SLPs can work on language difficulties such as phonological deficits when they appear in both languages.

Communicating with your student’s parents or guardians is also very important, and being bilingual will make this easier.

Adult English Language Learners

While most SLPs who work with ELLs do so in the context of grades pre-K through 12, there is also a niche for working with adult ELLs who want to reduce their accent.

If a non-native English speaker does not learn English by around the age of nine they will usually speak with an accent for life. By working with an SLP, many are able to reduce their accents to levels that are barely noticeable.