The number of English Language Learners (ELLs) in public schools in the United States grew by about 900,000 between 1993-94 and 1999-2000 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2004), and young ELLs represented about 15 percent of all children attending public preschool programs in 2000-01 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2001). Children who arrive at school speaking a language other than English may be referred for special education services at disproportionately higher rates than their English speaking peers due to the challenges schools experience in distinguishing between language differences and language difficulties or disabilities. One recent study conducted in North Carolina (Hardin, Roach-Scott, & Peisner-Feinberg, 2007) gathered information from 141 early childhood educators and administrators to determine: (1) How children’s cultural and linguistic differences are addressed with regard to special education referral, evaluation, and placement, (2) How schools accommodate parents during the referral, evaluation, and placement process, and (3) The extent to which early childhood education professionals have been trained about cultural and linguistic practices relevant to the referral, evaluation, and placement process. Findings from this survey may provide some useful suggestions for early childhood education programs who are interested in assessing the needs of ELLs in their own communities who may be considered for referral to special education services.
Several noteworthy findings emerged from the survey. With regard to how schools address children’s cultural and linguistic differences during the referral, evaluation, and placement process, a greater percentage of administrators and teachers reported determining children’s English language proficiency through observations in school (72% for administrators, 80% for teachers) than through language proficiency assessments (35% for administrators, 31% for teachers) or through home observations (24% for administrators, 30% for teachers). In situations where teachers and administrators report determining children’s English language proficiency through observations, such centers should consider devoting resources to training observers to how to use valid and reliable observation tools with accuracy. They might also consider bringing a speech-language pathologist on board to conduct the observations, or to have the speech-language pathologist conduct a greater number of language proficiency assessments.
Administrators and teachers also reported the number of times per year they administered a general developmental screening to ELLs. Forty eight percent of administrators and 41% of teachers reported administering a developmental screening once per year, 48 percent of administrators (42% of teachers) reported administering a screening twice per year, and 22 percent of administrators (11% of teachers) reported administering a developmental screening to ELLs three times per year. Early childhood education programs with similar findings should consider increasing the number of screenings they conduct to at least three per year. One screening might be conducted at the beginning of the year to obtain a baseline measure of a child’s proficiency. A second screening might be conducted mid-year to assess a child’s development over the first few months of the year, and the third might be conducted at the end of the year to provide useful proficiency information to a transitioning child’s kindergarten teacher.
With regard to encouraging parent participation in the referral, evaluation, and placement process, 91 percent of administrators (89% of teachers) reported having a face-to-face meeting at their school to obtain information from parents as part of the diagnostic process, 76 percent of administrators (63% of teachers) reported providing written documents to parents about the process, 62 percent of administrators (56 % of teachers) reported using parent- and primary caregiver-provided goals for children, and 43 percent of administrators (34% of teachers) reported conducting a home visit with families. Early childhood education programs might also consider polling parents to determine whether they feel methods for including parents in the referral, evaluation, and placement process are effective. If parents request additional face-to-face meetings with teachers and administrators, for example, early childhood education programs could adjust their strategies accordingly to encourage a greater level of parent participation.
Administrators additionally responded to survey questions concerning the amount and types of training their school provided for early childhood education professionals on topics related to addressing linguistic and cultural diversity in the special education referral, evaluation, and placement process for ELLs. Sixty one percent of administrators reported that teachers in their schools attended local conferences and staff development as a method of preparing teachers to instruct ELL children. Other less commonly reported methods included college coursework (48%), district-wide staff development (26%), and national conferences (9%). All early childhood programs should examine not only how they provide training to their teachers and other professionals, but also whether the methods they use most commonly represent the best choices for their programs. For example, in small centers and schools, it might be more cost effective to pay for tuition for teachers to attend some college-level courses than to bring in a consultant to provide a costly one-day professional development session.
Administrators also responded to questions about the role of bilingual teachers and assistants in their classrooms. Fifty percent of the respondents reported that the role of a bilingual teacher or teacher assistant involved interactions with children in the classroom, 35 percent reported that the role of these teachers involved interactions with parents (through meetings, conferences, or home visits), 10 percent reported the role of tutoring, and an equal percentage (5%) of administrators reported that the main role of bilingual teachers or assistants involved translating written documents and providing professional development for other staff. Programs should evaluate the role of bilingual teachers to determine whether children are best served in those cases where a bilingual teacher or assistant’s main role is other than interacting directly with the ELLs they serve.
Although only a few examples were discussed here, the kinds of questions included in the survey should serve as a useful starting point for other early childhood programs who are interested in assessing the needs of ELLs and early childhood professionals in their own communities.
Hardin, B.J., Roach-Scott, M., & Peisner-Feinberg, E.S. (2007). Special education referral, evaluation, and placement practices for preschool English language learners. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 22, 39-45.
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2002). Fast Response Survey System: Survey of Classes That Serve Children Prior to Kindergarten in Public Schools (FRSS 78). Washington, DC: Author. FRSS 78, 2001.
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2004). English language learner students in U.S. public schools: 1994 and 2000 (NCES Publication No. 2004-035). Washington, DC: Author.
Khara Pence Turnbull, Ph.D. is editor of Assessment in Emergent Literacy (Plural Publishing) and author of Language Development from Theory to Practice (Merrill/Prentice Hall).