Do I Need to Test Bilingual Children in Both Languages?

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

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.

Model of Bilingualism

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.

Testing Bilingual Children in Both Languages

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.

Test Bilingual Children in Both Languages

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.


Written by: Ellen Kester

10 Comments on “Do I Need to Test Bilingual Children in Both Languages?”

  1. May 10, 2018 at 7:40 pm #

    What about students who are native Spanish speakers but enroll in ESL programs with no native language support at school? Is it possible for both languages to look low because of L1 loss and L2 not yet being developed?

    • May 10, 2018 at 11:23 pm #

      That is possible. If the home language stays the same, language loss is not typically a big problem but we do see that students don’t develop vocabulary related to academic vocabulary in their home language. Dynamic assessment will help you tease apart whether there is a disorder or whether their lower performances is a result of limited proficiency/exposure.

  2. May 11, 2018 at 12:51 pm #

    Our problem is with the many children who are ELLs and from the mid-east. We have no SLPs to test them.

    • May 26, 2018 at 8:50 am #

      When we don’t have SLPs who speak the native language we have to work with interpreters and dig up information about the child’s native language. See our Difference or Disorder book and check our blog for languages that aren’t in the book.

  3. May 26, 2018 at 5:58 am #

    How do you proceed when the L1 is not a mainstream language like the Spanish example you provided? We get children coming out of early intervention for whom there are no standardized assessments in their L1 and no SLP who speaks the same language. In a public integrated preschool we encounter this evaluation dilemma all the time. How do we best proceed?

    • May 26, 2018 at 8:47 am #

      Yes, this is something we encounter a lot. We have to rely solely on informal evaluation measures. Our book Difference or Disorder? walks you through the process of how to this with a variety of languages. We also have two online courses that dive into this in detail. One is Difference or Disorder – Language and one is Difference or Disorder – Speech. Informal evaluations are also the topic for SLP Impact for the month of June.

  4. June 21, 2018 at 5:47 pm #

    Do schools in TX have to provide an interpreter for speech therapy if the SLP does not speak his or her language?

    • June 22, 2018 at 1:21 pm #

      That’s a great question. It is best practice to do so, and some districts do provide this service. It is not required for speech therapy but it is required for evaluations.

  5. October 5, 2018 at 7:54 am #

    I need suggestions on how to proceed with an early reevaluation for two nine-year-old fourth-grade twins who were found eligible for Communication Disorder in language (and one sister in articulation). Their case history forms indicate that at home the twins were/are exposed to Spanish from their mother and father (he speaks English decently) and English from their older sister and that they first attended school with English instruction at the age of five. However, dad swears up and down that they “do not speak/know Spanish” and that they communicate with mom through older sister. In addition, the most recent SLP data indicates that when asked to generate a language sample in Spanish they were hesitant/did not produce enough of a sample for analysis. Based on the pretty recent information that they were eligible for CD as well as parent/teacher report, and my own testing which places them very low, is it necessary to test them in Spanish. My overall concern is that differential diagnosis depends on assessment in both languages, but I remember that in grad school they really hammered home the point that if there’s a disorder in one language, then they clearly have a disorder. How should I proceed?

    • October 5, 2018 at 8:37 am #

      Hi Trevor,
      If a student is exposed to Spanish on a consistent basis, I think it is important to explore their Spanish skills. I would explain to the parents that it is important to explore all languages the child has been consistently exposed to in order to understand their whole language system. I would also describe to the father that often children have receptive language abilities in a language even when they do not speak it often. I would use one of the wordless picture books by Mercer Mayer and tell a story to the student then ask her to retell the story, and follow it up with some story comprehension questions. That should give you a sense of their Spanish abilities and inform you as to whether formal testing is needed.

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