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Guest Bilingual Speech-Language Pathology Blog – Could Bilingual Education be Detrimental to Monolingual English-speaking Students with Special Needs?

By: Scott Prath, M.A., CCC-SLP, Bilinguistics
Reprinted with the express permission of the author as it appeared on the Bilinguistics Blog
Editor’s Note: To protect the privacy of the children involved, the school district’s name has been changed to “Your District” and the elementary school to “ABC School”
Dear Scott,
We have a Life Skills class at ABC School with both English and Spanish speakers (6-7 to 2 ratio). We have several parents of English speakers who are upset because their kids will be exposed to two languages and may consequently be delayed in their development or even regress. Because Life Skills classes have very little if any whole group instruction and there are multiple adults leading individual and small group activities, I am not worried about this issue. However, at least one parent is challenging me on this. If we have enough students to consider a class made up of only Spanish speakers, we may consider that in the future. I know Austin ISD does that model, but I’m not sure how and when they transition into English.
As you have probably gathered by now, I am seeking a better understanding of what is best and even acceptable practice for this type of classroom. I would like to reassure the parents if possible. Thanks for any help you can give me.
Director of Special Education, School District in Texas
Hi Linda,
It has taken us quite a while to find information and research on this topic. You nearly stumped us. What we spoke about with Viki, and what we normally respond to, is the opposite situation. Normally a parent speaking a minority language is advocating for support in the home language, not the other way around. You can imagine that there are reams of research on how to best/correctly serve minority populations in special education. What you ask is very intriguing:
How do you best serve English-language students with impairments that share classrooms and resources with second-language students?
How do you address the concerns of the English-language parent who fears that their child (who is already having difficulty learning and communicating) might have greater difficulty because some of the content, resources, and classroom interaction might not be in their language?
Below I have put together some suggestions and points to consider. At the bottom are some links to information coming from formal (research) and informal (special education professionals) resources. You have a great deal to be proud of in Your District regarding the support that you have created for special education. I feel that if we met with the parents to explain the process, shared information with them, and did a classroom visit, that their concerns would be assuaged. Let me know if you would like me to participate in any of interactions with the English-speaking families.

  1. ALL classrooms have varying degrees of cultural influence.
    This issue is not inherently a special education issue. Your district teaches students from over two dozen language groups. Most of these students are in English-dominant classrooms with a large ration of English to non-native English speakers.
    The proportionality of the Life Skills classroom at ABC School matches the make-up of the district.
  2. ABC School materials are in English. A visit to the classroom with a focus on what is on the walls, what books are being used, how the objects in the room are labeled, what the paperwork/homework looks like, what language the music is in, would most likely show that the students’ environmental learning at ABC School is 99% in English. What is said verbally by an instructor is just a fraction of the language input that a child receives. I am usually on the other end of this, showing a teacher how to increase native language exposure when they don’t speak a foreign language, by changing the environment linguistically.
  3. Parents are protected by a comprehensive curriculum. The four major partners in bilingual special education curriculum development are the parents, the mainstream teacher, the bilingual teacher, and the special education teacher. The following steps should be undertaken by this team:
    • Meet as a team to begin the planning process. Outline planning steps.
    • Become familiar with the culture and language background of the child.
    • Become familiar with the special learning style and education needs of the child.
    • Prepare an individual instructional plan with short- and long-term goals (in some cases this may be an IEP).
    • Develop individualized lessons and materials appropriate to the child’s exceptionality.
    • Modify individualized lessons and materials using a cultural screen and sensitivity.
    • Refer to resource people for assistance and cooperation in instruction; coordinate services.
    • Evaluate the child’s ongoing progress and develop a new individual plan (IEP), materials, and so forth, as needed.
    • Start the cycle over.
  4. Parents are protected by the IEP and change could be made if regression is noted.
    Special education students receive individual plans regardless of native language. With bilingual classroom, language is an additional concern, but each student’s progress is set individually and monitored. After the first nine-week grading period, we would identify if an English-speaking child was regressing or incorporating Spanish into their communicative style.
    “IEPs for exceptional bilingual students should include the following elements:”
    The child’s current educational status, including all service programs the child is receiving.
    Goals, including adaptation to acculturation and growth in both the first and second language. The goals must be realistic in regard to the time necessary; years could be involved.
    The sequence of short-term instructional objectives leading up to each goal.
    A list of instructional and service requirements including a balance between the first and second language, as well as delineation of who will assist with acculturation needs.
    An indication of how much and what aspects of the program will be in the mainstream.
    The program’s duration.
    IEP’s realistic criteria and a schedule for evaluation of the IEP’s effectiveness.
    A statement of the role of the parents.
    Specification of changes to be made in the physical, social, and instructional realms, including the first and second languages and cross-cultural adaptation.
  5. Communication in Life Skills Units is highly contextual and symbolic
    Symbolic communication is language neutral.
  6. Language Acquisition is governed by environmental language
    When we work to identify how bilingual a student is, we take into account a large number of factors; home language, country language, number of speakers in the home, language of the school, tv and radio exposure, and percentage of classmates that are bilingual or native speaking. This adds up to an average percentage of the day that a child is exposed to their native language. Even in largely Spanish-speaking homes, we find that most children are quite fluent in English by third grade despite the degree of Spanish that is spoken. If we were to take into consideration the actual percentage of the day that an English-speaking Life Skills student is exposed to Spanish, I feel it would be too insignificant to influence their communication.
  7. Your District has historical success and experience in serving second-language students. Your District has been working for years to be better serve second-language students. You could describe the growth in the number of schools that have been transformed to bilingual campuses grade by grade and school by school. The same holds true for Special Education. Not too long ago there was no bilingual PPCD, then one, now two classrooms. No bilingual PEAR program, no bilingual resource classrooms, no bilingual aids, etc. was the norm until recently. Your District has an incredible history of developing bilingual programs as the needs increase. ABC School is not a “temporary situation.” It is not a temporary fix/stop-gap measure, due to lack of resources, lack of need, or lack of bilingual teachers. It is a natural progression that many districts deal with as their population grows. Your District can point to a multitude of successful plans and these can be shared with the parents. I feel that they will be reassured if they know that the decisions at ABC School are part of a greater plan.

I hope this information helps when working with the families of the children at ABC School.
Featured Guest Blogger: Scott Prath, M.A., CCC-SLP, Bilinguistics
We thank our authors for providing us with this article for our Monthly newsletter.
Scott Prath, M.A., CCC-SLP is Vice President of Bilinguistics, Inc.. Scott completed his master’s degree at the University of Texas at Austin in Communication Sciences and Disorders. He also completed his bachelor’s degrees at the University of Texas in Spanish and Communication Sciences and Disorders. His studies focused on second language acquisition and speech productions in Spanish-speaking children with cochlear implants. He has presented to Speech-Language Pathologists internationally and translates for the Spanish-speaking community in Austin.

PediaStaff hires pediatric and school-based professionals nationwide for contract assignments of 2 to 12 months. We also help clinics, hospitals, schools, and home health agencies to find and hire these professionals directly. We work with Speech-Language Pathologists, Occupational and Physical Therapists, School Psychologists, and others in pediatric therapy and education.


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