Bridging The Gap: Considerations For Clinicians Working With English Language Learners For The First Time

As a new clinician working in my rural hometown, I initially felt unprepared about how to best work with English language learners (ELLs). I had not worked with this population before, and my school district has limited professional development opportunities in this area—and limited resources in general. Also, because there is only a limited number of interpreters and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teachers for the entire district, their availability tends to be restricted.

This made me feel unprepared due to my lack of confidence in assessing and treating ELL students and effectively communicating with them and their families. Nevertheless,14% of my caseload consisted of Spanish-speaking ELL students, so I had to figure out what I could do to evaluate and provide intervention services to them effectively and ethically. Addressing this challenge is crucial for ensuring equitable access to high-quality speech and language therapy services for all students.

Collaborate With Peers

I knew that I needed help. So, I started by collaborating with the district’s interpreter and ESOL teacher. These two individuals shared with me some of the common barriers that a typical monolingual educator—that is, someone who speaks only one language—faces when working with ELL students.

Monolingual educators may face some or all of the following challenges (and these challenges could apply to clinicians, as well):  

  • fear of not overcoming the language barrier between themselves and their ELL students
  • misconceptions about who ELL students are and what they can do
  • lack of confidence in their own ability to work with ELL students
  • fewer opportunities to collaborate with other language professionals and educators to discuss solutions to these barriers—due to lack of availability

There are even more surprising insights to consider when it comes to how families respond to their children receiving speech services. Families may have questions about whether their child will be confused if the language used in therapy is English yet their parents maintain the heritage language in the home. Here are a few possible reasons why they may have such questions:

  • The family may be scared that their child would lose their heritage language if it were not being taught at school.
  • The family may not realize that using both languages simultaneously is actually good for academic success—and research has proven this.
  • The family may rely heavily on the interpreter or ESOL teacher—to the point where they (the family) don’t communicate as much without assistance from educators.
  • The family may feel intimidated at the thought of trying to find resources and materials (e.g., books that address the challenges their children face) because they automatically think that those publications will be in English and that they won’t be able to read them.

Ten Considerations for Working With ELL Students

Based on these insights and my own experiences, I’ve compiled a list of considerations for clinicians working with ELL students for the first time:

1. Accept that you may not be proficient in other languages.
Research ways to help your student see how their heritage language affects their secondary language. Learn more about the language features and potential ways in which the student’s languages might influence communication patterns.

2. Collaborate with the student’s family.
Give the family translated resources so that they can support multilingualism and communication development with their children at home.

3. Learn more about the student’s heritage language and culture.
Many families don’t feel comfortable confiding in people who aren’t familiar with their heritage language and culture. Try to create authentic connections with families by learning basic phrases in their language. Show interest and curiosity in their heritage language and culture. Create opportunities for reciprocal learning—for instance, ask about an upcoming holiday or celebration and how you could incorporate their traditions as examples in an upcoming session with their child.

4. Have an appreciative mindset.
Everyone is different, and that’s okay. Consider applying an asset-based approach or having an appreciative mindset, which leads to honoring diversity and acknowledging the strengths that students and families bring. By doing this, you can demonstrate cultural competence and cultural responsiveness.

5. Make therapy materials less demanding on the families.
Have approachable and engaging materials available for families. This can include brochures, worksheets, or videos. This will increase the chances that therapy will yield a positive outcome.

6. Inform families that learning two languages does not confine or confuse a child.
Encourage families to use their languages—both of all of them—to promote communication and multilingualism. Explain to the family that learning another language does not limit a child—rather, it improves their communication.

7. Use their culture wherever possible in therapy.
Incorporate music, foods, games, books, and even Boom cards that are in the child’s heritage language.

8. Gain awareness of how syntax and semantics differ in languages.
Syntax and semantics may not translate correctly when using text-to-speech or translation apps—so, be cautious. Translation apps often do a direct word-for-word translation that doesn’t always account for differences in syntax between languages. Translation apps also may not always capture the nuanced meanings behind expressions, metaphors, or colloquialisms. Whenever possible, it’s best to collaborate with a translator.

9. Be aware of articulation differences in English versus articulation differences in the heritage language.
It’s common to misdiagnose students as having a language disorder when, in fact, it’s really a language difference that is due to lack of awareness or understanding.

10. Most important, use a translator or interpreter when necessary.
Seek support, and use a translator or interpreter, when necessary. Interpreters convey spoken language, whereas translators work with written language. Using an interpreter in sessions or having a translator translate materials can reduce confusion and frustration—and, thus, can support success for the clinician and student.

Effective, Ethical Evaluation and Intervention

So, how can we as clinicians effectively and ethically evaluate and provide services to ELL students?

  • Collaborate with an interpreter or ESOL teacher to give and gather information on child socialization and cultural factors.
  • Gather information regarding a child’s level of proficiency in English and in their heritage language—as well as their background knowledge and skills—through multiple sources.
  • Then, share evaluation results regarding the child’s performance.
  • After that, develop a customized intervention plan, selecting appropriate materials and instructional strategies and involving the child’s caregivers.

When it comes to intervention strategies, collaborate with the student’s ESOL teacher, interpreter, and family to share ideas and resources. Plan and work together to coordinate goals and objectives while considering cultural and linguistic factors that affect service delivery. Learn more about the populations we serve by working directly with families—they’re integral to the speech therapy process.

Professional Development and Resources

It is crucial to keep learning strategies that will help you support ELL students. Here are just a few such strategies:

As clinicians, we work with children of various races, backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, cultures, and languages. Competent care means providing services that are respectful of and responsive to an individual’s values, preferences, and language(s). Care should not vary in quality based on language access, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, or other factors. One of our main goals as clinicians should always be to ensure that access and the quality of speech and language therapy services are equitable to all who use them.

I encourage all clinicians to seek resources, collaborate with interpreters and ESOL teachers, and continually work toward improving their own cultural competence and responsiveness—in order to better serve ELL students and their families.

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