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September 10, 2002

Professor says ESL speakers often
mistakenly singled out for special ed

An unintentional result of California's increasing diversity may be an overtaxing of the state's special education programs. A California State University, Sacramento professor says children learning English as a second language are being referred to special education for communication disorders more often than primary English speakers, even though the incidence of communication disorders is the same across ethnic groups.

Celeste Roseberry-McKibbin, a speech pathology and audiology professor and speech therapist, first noticed the problem years ago as a school speech therapist working with bilingual children and continues to see it in her consulting role with a local school district. The question is: Do they have underlying speech and language learning problems or do they just need more time to learn English?

"Often, the children are referred because they aren't progressing academically and have been slow to learn English," she says. "It's important to differentiate a language difference versus a disorder."

If the child's skills in his or her primary language are normal, but he or she is behind in English, it may be a language difference issue. But if the child is slow in both, it could be an underlying disability.

"I look at patterns that are atypical for both languages," Roseberry-McKibbin says. If a child has underlying language issues they may not be able to express themselves in appropriately long sentences or comprehend and remember what they hear. They may have difficulty with articulation, pronouncing their sounds. They may stutter."

The incidence of speech problems is similar across ethnic groups, she says, though multicultural kids are referred more often. It may be because many teachers aren't familiar with the English acquisition process. "For example, when exposed to a new language many children go through a 'silent period' where they won't talk in either language," Roseberry-McKibbin says.

Cultural differences may also play a factor. For example, if a child has been referred for a delay in speaking, it's important to determine if his or her culture encourages independence and early self-expression. Many cultures don't expect children to do as much for themselves as soon as Americans do, she says.

And while the prevailing view in this country is that stuttering is a disability, some cultures don't see it that way. In fact, she says, in some countries a disability may be considered a test of character from God. In others, girls are expected to take on household chores while boys aren't encouraged to attend to tasks or take on responsibility at a young age. This can cause referrals for attention deficit disorder, she says.

Roseberry-McKibbin has written a book for English speaking clinicians working with bilingual students, The Source for Bilingual Students with Language Disorders. It incorporates techniques from the fields of second language acquisition and speech pathology. For instance, instead of starting bilingual language-disordered students on talking immediately, as with monolingual children, the therapist might start with comprehension activities.

More information is available by calling the CSUS public affairs office at (916) 278-6156.



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