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English Language Learner Characteristics: An Overview of Assessment Issues

By: Alejandro Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, Ellen Kester, Ph.D., CCC-SLP Roanne Brice, Ph.D. CCC-SLP

Bilingualism is a phenomena that is seen worldwide and also very prevalent in the U.S. It was recently estimated that 17.9% of all individuals in the U.S. speak another language (i.e., other than English) in the home (U.S., Census Bureau, 2007). Of this Latinos are the largest culturally and linguistically diverse population in the U.S estimated to be 15.1% of the total U.S. population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2007). However pervasive bilingualism may be in the U.S., many misperceptions continue to exist regarding the nature of bilingualism and working with bilingual students, especially when assessing their language and learning abilities. Bilingualism is a complex linguistic, cognitive, and social phenomena. Further elaboration of how the two languages interact is warranted in light of assessing English language learners’ (ELLs) skills. A discussion of second language acquisition issues, language loss issues or incomplete first language development, dual language learning characteristics, and disproportionate representation of Latino students are discussed.
Second Language Acquisition Issues
Researchers in second language acquisition have demonstrated that learning a second language may take from anywhere from two to three years for oral language skills to develop and 4-6 years or 5-7 years or sometimes even longer for academic language skills to develop (Collier, 1987; Hakuta, 1986). Academic language skills will only develop in this mentioned timeframe if the student has achieved a strong foundational base in their first language (Cummins, 1984; 1998; Thomas & Collier, 2002). Thomas and Collier (2002) found in a longitudinal study consisting of 210,054 student cases across four U.S. states that students who were taught in a maintenance bilingual education program (i.e., maintaining instruction in both languages from four-five to years) performed equal to their monolingual English speaking peers by their fifth or sixth year in U.S. schools. Hence, English language development appears to be enhanced by strong first (L1) language abilities.
Maintaining abilities in both languages takes considerable time and effort as noted by research that first language (L1) or home language abilities can be lost and also that second language learners can stop growing in their English learning (Anderson, 1999; Roseberry-McKibbin, 1995; Seliger & Vago, 1991). In other words, if students do not receive the opportunities to practice both of their languages equally, then their two languages are subject to either being lost or not fully developing. Wong-Fillmore (1992) stated that four conditions must exist for learners to acquire English: (a) The student must have a need to communicate; (b) She/he must have access to English speakers; and © He/she needs to interact, receive support, and receive feedback from the English speakers; and (d) The student must be given time to learn English. If these conditions are not adequately met, then English acquisition may be hampered. In addition, if the native language is not supported and English becomes a dominant language then language loss may occur. The next section discusses the issues of language loss and incomplete first language development.
Language Loss or Incomplete L1 Development
Initial data analysis of a current study of 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade bilingual students and their dual language abilities (i.e., English and Spanish phonemic awareness skills, word identification, and vocabulary skills) prompted the observation that the vast majority of the students were showing English dominance and less capable Spanish language skills. Hence, two questions emerged: (1)Are these Spanish-English speaking students experiencing language loss of their native language (L1); (2) Or is it that their Spanish was never fully developed? Our initial impressions are that it may be a combination of these two factors. Children continue to develop their language skills later into life, i.e., into their teens and adulthood (Brice & Brice, 2009).
What is typical and may be affecting English language development is the early introduction of English into the home and how easily English can oust Spanish in terms of popularity, proficiency and ultimately use. Brice, Carson, and O’Brien (2009) found that even in large Spanish speaking communities (i.e., Miami and Orlando, Florida) young Spanish speaking four year olds demonstrated the strong pressure of English as seen in their Spanish phonology and lexical skills.
Under ideal conditions (e.g., near equal amounts of both languages such as 60% English and 40% Spanish), then balanced bilingualism can result (Brice & Wertheim, 2004/2005; Pearson, Fernandez, Lewedeg, & Oller, 1997; Pearson, Fernandez, & Oller, 1995; Pearson, Fernandez, & Oller, 1993). However, language attrition typically occurs under less than perfect bilingual conditions (Anderson, 1999; Seliger & Vago, 1991). Given that English is the predominant language in schools, in the media, and for students it serves as the primary means of communication with teachers and most friends; it seems very plausible that English becomes dominant and that Spanish becomes targeted as a minority language. Consequently, the home language will develop minority status and be at-risk for language loss. The acquisition of English while losing the home language has dramatic language learning and educational consequences: (1) the child’s language development stalls and resembles a language learning disability; (2) communication with both parents may weaken; (3) it takes a significantly longer time to fully develop English academic language skills (Thomas & Collier, 1997); and (4) ) positive transference of language skills from Spanish to English will be lessened (Cummins, 1984, 1998).
Cummins (1984, 1998) stated the existence of a threshold hypothesis whereupon certain the student must achieve certain proficiency levels in their L1 before language transfer occurs and before the cognitive benefits of balanced bilingualism can be attained. If this threshold is not attained then what may result is language loss (or subtractive bilingualism). However, if this language threshold is obtained, then positive language transfer can occur.
Dual Language Learning Characteristics to Consider
Grosjean (1989) stated that the bilingual individual does not consist of two monolinguals in one person. That is, the bilingual speaker’s two languages and cognitive processes are in constant interaction. Even when speaking in only one language the bilingual’s dual languages are in constant contact. Grosjean stated that, “The coexistence and constant interaction of the two languages in the bilingual has produced a different but complete linguistic entity” (p. 6). The bilingual develops competencies in both their languages to the extent that is required by his/her environment. And the extent to which each language (i.e., how much L1 or L2 are active) refers to language mode (Grosjean, 1989). A second language cannot be completely deactivated.
Therefore, the bilingual speaker never truly turns one language off even when speaking solely in one language. The bilingual speaker has contact with two phonologies, lexicons, syntactic systems, and pragmatic means of interaction. They have the ability to choose which language may best convey their communicative intent. A more apt means of thinking of a bilingual speaker’s abilities is to think of their language abilities as a combined form (L3) which is continuously activated. L3 is a blending of their first (L1) and second languages (L2) which cannot be subtracted from their L1 or L2. L3 can involve code switching and/or code mixing. L3 can occur when speaking solely in either the L1 or L2, in other words, the bilingual brain is always functioning in L3 mode. See the below Figure.
Figure 1
Language Activation Modes in First and Second Languages
•L1 Active——————————>
•L2 Inactive—->
•L1 Inactive—>
•L2 Active——————————->
•L1 Active——————————–>
•L2 Active—————->
•L1 Active—————>
•L2 Active——————————–>
•L1 Active——————————–>
•L2 Active——————————–>
The implication for teachers and assessment personnel is that any assessment of a bilingual child’s aptitudes should incorporate their language abilities from L1 and L2. If the teacher or assessment professional has information from both languages, then these performances should not be separately analyzed. Assessment results need to be analyzed as a combined first and second language effort (i.e., L3 mode). Poplack (1980) stated that when a bilingual speaker code switches and code mixes, then she/he has to abide by both language grammars simultaneously. Bilingual speakers, even when speaking in only one language, have to simultaneously account for both language grammars (i.e., phonology, semantics, morphology, syntax, pragmatics). For example, this can occur during a momentary language interference when a bilingual speaker attempts to read a Spanish word as an English word or vice versa. A bilingual speaker can also demonstrate a broader vocabulary encompassing both languages because they have access to words and meanings across their two languages [e.g., “autobus” in Spanish can trigger “bus” in English and alternatively “auto” in English, or “carro” (car) in Spanish]. Hence, “autobus” can trigger a broader set of related terms in both languages.
In terms of language assessment the following caveats should be followed in order to obtain a true performance score of any bilingual student’s language abilities: (a) both languages should be assessed; (2) results should be obtained from the native language (L1); (3) results should be obtained from the second language (L2); and, (4) results should be obtained combining both languages (L1-L2).
Assessment Issues
General education teachers, English for teachers of other languages (ESOL) or English as a second language (ESL) professionals, and speech-language pathologists assess English language learners for school placement decisions (i.e., does the student qualify for ESOL/ESL services and is the student still in need of ESOL/ESL service). The assessment process in Florida encompasses three criteria: (1) use of a limited home language survey; (2) administration of a single norm-referenced standardized test such as the Idea Proficiency Test -3 (IPT-3) (Ballard & Tighe) or the Comprehensive English Language Learning Assessment (CELLA) (Educational Testing Service); and a state mandated test, i.e., the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT).
Are these measures are truly valid and reliable? All tests and measurements should possess content validity (in this instance, do the items a truly measure language abilities?); predictive validity (the ability to predict classroom and school success); and convergent validity (the degree to which the test or measure is able to identify language aspects that are same or similar); discriminant validity (the ability to which the test or measure is able to identify language aspects that are different). Tests and measures should possess test-retest reliability (i.e., consistency of the test after a second administration) and also internal consistency (are the items appropriate or item analysis).
However, tests of English ability may lack the following: predictive validity, discriminant validity, test-retest reliability. For example, the IPT-3, the CELLA, and the FCAT all measure similar attributes of language (listening, speaking, reading, writing). Yet, these tests are typically administered during a few sessions lasting no more than one week in duration. These “single shot” approaches to assessment lack the ability to gauge performance over time. Please note the impetus of the response to intervention/instruction and the challenge to the administration of single tests administered once to students with disabilities. In essence, they do not measure learning.
The IPT-3, CELLA, and FCAT also lack discriminant ability because they are all measuring similar language attributes (concurrent validity) and consequently the test items correlate highly with other language variables (convergent validity). In order for any measure to possess divergent validity it must measure very different aspects of language. This is something the these test do not measure. Another means of establishing divergent validity is to employ different measures including classroom observations, teacher interviews, portfolio samples, running records or short probe measures. This is typically done in special education and speech-language pathology when assessing ELL students suspected of also having a disability.
The IPT-3, CELLA, and FCAT may possess psychometric test-retest reliability and internal consistency, but the fact remains that these tests were not designed to be administered multiple times over the course of an academic year. Therefore, they cannot be used by teachers or speech-language pathologists to gauge performance over time. They are static yearly measures.
Consider the following scenario of a kindergarten student administered a standardized English language placement test (e.g., Pre-Language Assessment Scale, Pre-LAS). The Pre-LAS is an oral language test. This student for whatever reason performs well on this exam. This test does not assess her/his written language (i.e., reading and writing). As a consequence the student is not enrolled in ESOL or ESL services. The student struggles in reading and writing over the next two and a half years. What happened?
The administration of a single test did not accurately reflect her true language abilities (content validity). The test did also not assess other language abilities such as reading and writing (divergent validity). The test did not accurately predict future classroom abilities (predictive validity) and may not have been adequately correlated with other measures (home language survey or the FCAT) resulting in a lack of convergent validity or concurrent validity.
How could this resulting misplacement have been avoided? The answers are taken from the fields of bilingual speech-language pathology and bilingual special education and.
In conclusion, multiple language and social factors may affect an English language learner’s ability to learn and succeed in school. Speech-language pathologists, teachers, and assessment personnel must consider the length of time that it takes to learn and become academically proficient in a second language. Factors such as language loss, incomplete first language development, and dual language activation are only a few of the variables that may affect a student’s performance in classrooms and/or on any assessment. Given that many Latino students are disproportionately placed into exceptional education programs; it is essential to realize that one test fits all approach to assessing bilingual students is inappropriate.
It is the benefit to the child and to the school that ELL students maintain their native language. Schools will see less referrals for exceptional education testing [i.e., tier two or tier three response to intervention (RTI) approaches] since on the surface these students may show some language lags perceived to be a language learning disability. Research has demonstrated that promoting bilingualism promotes English language development and acquisition (Brice & Brice 2009; Brice, Miller, & Brice, 2006; Brice & Wertheim, 2004/2005). In conclusion, SLPs and teachers in promoting the education of ELLs should promote bilingualism and encourage students to use their native language.
Anderson, R. (1999). Impact of first language loss on grammar in a bilingual child. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 21(4), 4-16.
Brice, A. & Brice, R. (2009). (Ed.s). Language development: Monolingual and bilingual acquisition. Old Tappan, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.
Brice, A., Carson, C., & O’Brien, J. (2009). Spanish-English articulation and phonology of four and five year old preschool children: An initial investigation. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 31(1), 3-14.
Brice, A., Miller, K., & Brice, R. G. (2006). Language in the English as a second language and the general education classroom: A tutorial . Communication Disorders Quarterly, 27, 240-247.
Brice, A., & Wertheim, E. (2004/2005). Language differentiation in young bilingual children. Tejas. Texas Journal of Audiology and Speech Language Pathology, 28, 24-31.
Collier, V. (1987). Age and rate of acquisition of second language for academic purposes. TESOL Quarterly, 21(4), 617-641.
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This Month’s Featured Authors:
Alejandro Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP University of South Florida St. Petersburg
Roanne Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP University of Central Florida
Ellen Kester, Ph.D., CCC-SLP Bilinguistics, Inc.
Many thanks to The Authors for providing this article for this month’s newsletter
Dr. Alejandro E. Brice is an Associate Professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg in Secondary/ESOL Education. His research has focused on issues of transference or interference between two languages in the areas of phonetics, phonology, semantics, and pragmatics related to speech-language pathology. In addition, his clinical expertise relates to the appropriate assessment and treatment of Spanish-English speaking students and clients. Please visit his website at or reach him by email at [email protected]
Dr. Roanne G. Brice is the Assistant to the Chair for the Department of Child, Family and Community Sciences at the University of Central Florida. Her research interests have focused on language and beginning literacy skills in bilingual children and students with disorders/disabilities. In addition to teaching at the university level, Dr. Brice has been an itinerant and self-contained classroom speech-language pathologist as well as a general education classroom teacher. She may be reached at [email protected]
Dr. Ellen Kester is a Founder and President of Bilinquistics, Inc. She earned her Ph.D. in Communication Sciences and Disorders from The University of Texas at Austin. She earned her Master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology and her Bachelor’s degree in Spanish at The University of Texas at Austin. She has provided bilingual Spanish/English speech-language services in schools, hospitals, and early intervention settings. Her research focus is on the acquisition of semantic language skills in bilingual children, with emphasis on assessment practices for the bilingual population. She has performed workshops and training seminars, and has presented at conferences both nationally and internationally. Dr. Kester teaches courses in language development, assessment and intervention of language disorders, early childhood intervention, and measurement at The University of Texas at Austin. She can be reached at  [email protected]

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