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How Can Experts Tell If a Non-Native English Speaker Has a Learning Issue?

By Molly Algermissen

How can experts tell if a non-native English speaker has a learning issue or is just having a hard time picking up a new language?

Molly Algermissen

Associate Professor of Medical Psychology, Columbia University Medical Center

This is a great question, and the answer is…very carefully! There are many steps involved in identifying learning issues in non-native English speakers. These kids are trying to learn new academic content at the same time they’re learning a new language. Imagine trying to study science in Swedish or some other language you don’t know very well. Not surprisingly, even kids who don’t have learning issues often end up falling behind academically.

Having an undiagnosed learning issue may further complicate these kids’ ability to reach their full potential in school. Educators refer to non-native English speakers as English language learners (ELLs). These children require more extensive assessments than are typically offered during a school evaluation.

Whenever I evaluate an English language learner, I work closely with my colleague Dennise Garcia. She’s a bilingual psychologist. Together, we look at different factors to help determine whether the child has a learning issue or is just having trouble picking up a new language.

We recently evaluated a 7-year-old boy from the Dominican Republic. We’ll call him “Luis.” He came to the U.S. when he was 4. As a first grader, he was placed in a general education classroom setting and was receiving the standard services that schools give to help kids learn English as a Second Language (ESL). However, it quickly became apparent to his teachers and parents that Luis was struggling, especially with reading.

Good reading skills depend on a person’s ability to decode basic units of speech (phonological awareness). Rapid naming also plays a key role. This term describes the ability to quickly say the names of things like colors or objects. To figure out whether Luis has dyslexia, we needed to test him in these areas in Spanish as well as English.

We also needed to test his broader language skills and academic skills in both languages. If his rapid naming and other skills in Spanish were on par with kids his age and he only had deficits in these skills in English, this pattern would suggest problems with language acquisition rather than a learning issue.

But our testing found that Luis had deficits in these skill areas in Spanish as well as English. This pointed to an underlying learning issue. To make progress, Luis needed special education tailored to meet his needs.

When evaluating kids like Luis, we consider lots of factors that could be contributing to their struggles in school. Possibilities include language delays, auditory processing disorder and difficulty with verbal working memory. We also consider what language they speak at home and how often they receive ESL services.

One or all of these factors can impact a student’s capacity to learn. That’s why it’s so important for Luis and children like him to get the right kind of testing. Although complex, this process is essential to make sure kids get the services they need to succeed in school.

About the Author

Portrait of Molly Algermissen

Molly Algermissen

Molly Algermissen, Ph.D., is an associate professor of medical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center and clinical director of PROMISE at Columbia, whose mission is to help underserved children with learning disabilities get the support they need to succeed.

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