This is a question I have heard a lot lately. Is there a certain point at which it is acceptable not to test bilingual children in both languages? Take a look at the following table that comes from a workshop we do on evaluating bilinguals.
The Need to Test Bilingual Children in Both Languages
If a child falls into one of the boxes with a green check, they do not have a language impairment because they have skills in at least one language that fall within normal limits. The red X indicates a child we are concerned about because their skills are below average in both languages.
Now let’s take a look at the following chart. We have Spanish proficiency from least to greatest on the bottom (X) axis and English proficiency from least to greatest on the side (Y) axis. Along the left side are monolingual English speakers and at the bottom part of the table are monolingual Spanish speakers. In between there is a range of bilinguals with varying levels of proficiency in their two languages.
See the same chart below color coded for Language Impaired (blue area) and Typical Development (green area). If a child falls in the green section (see blue dots), they have typical language skills. If they fall in the blue section (red dot), they present with a language disorder. What I want you to notice is that both of the children who fell in the green section had BELOW AVERAGE SCORES IN ONE LANGUAGE. One of them had below average scores in English and the other had below average scores in Spanish. We wouldn’t have known their full profile if we hadn’t tested in both languages. Had we picked only one language to use in the evaluation, both of these students could have been inaccurately identified as having a language disorder.
What if I test a student in Spanish and they fall within the average range? Do I need to continue testing in both languages?
Well, you can safely say a student does not have a language impairment if they fall within normal limits in one language BUT, it is very important to be able to speak to the reason for the referral. Let’s say a student receives all academic instruction in English and they are referred for testing. You start your evaluation in Spanish and the child shows skills that are within normal limits. Then you might just do informal testing (language sampling) in English so you can evaluate the concerns of the teachers and/or parents. Teachers put a lot of time into make a referral so we really need to be able to explain what they are seeing and show them why it is not indicative of a language disorder if we decide the student will not qualify for services. Use the charts in the Difference or Disorder? book to show teachers that the errors they are concerned about are not indicative of impairment.
What if testing from the previous evaluation indicated that the child’s language proficiency in Spanish was low and English was a better indication of his language skills?
If this is the case, we need to ask the question, “Does the child still have regular exposure to Spanish?” If so, you should do informal testing in the home language so you can evaluate error patterns across both languages. If the child no longer has regular and consistent exposure to Spanish, and their earlier evaluation showed limited skills in that language, then testing in that language would not be fruitful.
While there might be a few situations in which there is not need to test a child in both languages, most evaluations for bilingual children require that we do test bilingual children in both languages.
It does take longer for us to test bilingual children in both languages, but certainly no where near the time it takes when we admit students for speech therapy services that they do not need. This is one of the primary reasons that English Language Learners are disproportionately represented in special education programs in the United States. If you need help with process, be sure to check out our online courses.