Wednesday 12 January 2011

Language diverence or disapility?
=Guest post=

by Laura B. Raynolds

In the United States, many children enter the public school system not speaking the language used for schooling – English. Bilingual education has been outlawed in California and Massachusetts, and multilingualism is only valued with high-status languages, such as French or Swedish.

Beyond the politics of multilingualism however, lie the real lives of immigrant children and their success in school. My interests are in teaching English-Learning children (ELs) to read and in making sure that all children are reading in English at grade level by third grade. It is possible! With expert teaching in both language and literacy, children can quickly acquire the skills and vocabulary necessary for early reading. Reading itself will help to continue language acquisition.

However, there is a conundrum that teachers in the field face as they work to make sure all children are reading. The ability to hear the sounds of language and early literacy are strongly related. Research indicates that 3-5% of all children are at risk for phonologically based dyslexia. About 20% of all children are on a continuum needing explicit direct instruction and extra practice to learn to read. English-speaking children at risk for reading failure are often characterized by their difficulties in hearing sounds in words. They can be identified with tests that were created and normed for monolinguals.

Multilingual children with and without risk, however, often demonstrate this same difficulty, especially in early stages of English learning. In other words, they appear to be at risk for dyslexia, using the tests that are given to monolingual English-speaking children. Error patterns in their early spelling or invented spelling may also be similar to at-risk children. As you may have noticed in the title of this post, I tried to demonstrate how different languages – even similar ones – categorize sounds differently. A speaker of English may hear a /b/ sound whereas a speaker of Spanish listening to the same sound may identify it as /p/. My paper in Reading and Writing gives a detailed description of this in terms of young children’s invented spelling.

How can we distinguish language disability from language difference? This question is of utmost importance as we seek to provide early intervention to prevent reading failure. Much is now known about methods of teaching that prevent reading failure for most children at risk for dyslexia and this research has reached many U.S. public schools. Preventing reading failure is less traumatic for the child and much easier to fix than remediating difficulties after the child has experienced failure.

I have seen the pendulum swing from over-identification of ELs for special education and speech services to under-identification, especially in some schools with many ELs. I suspect that the high cost of special education services is contributing to this pendulum swing. Often poorly informed school officials will cite research indicating that it takes 5-7 years for ELs to catch up to their peers. They misuse that reasoning to let ELs with true reading disabilities suffer in classrooms without receiving the reading intervention that they need.

Much research is needed to document the normal development of English-learning children in English-only schools. Knowing what is typical is vital when trying to identify what is atypical. More research is needed for the early identification of ELs with reading disabilities, and most importantly this research needs to make its way into the public schools.
Laura B. Raynolds is an Assistant Professor of Reading at Southern Connecticut State University, and a Research Affiliate at Haskins Laboratories in New Haven, Connecticut.

© Laura B. Raynolds 2011

Next post: Global individuals. Saturday 15th January 2011.


  1. There is some work in this area. For example, Li Wei, Nick Miller, Barbara Dodd, Zhu Hua, (2008) 'Childhood Bilingualism: Distinguishing Difference from Disorder' In Ball, M. J. (Ed) Clinical Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell. Pp. 193-206.

  2. Thank you for this information!


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