Disentangling Language Acquisition From Communication Disorders -- What's Normal?

I teach at Bell Multicultural High School, where a majority of students are English language learners (ELL). At present in DCPS, Bell is only one of a handful of schools with a large ELL population, but if demographers are correct, ELLs will account for almost 40% of the school-aged population by the 2030s.

It is therefore essential that mainstream teachers – not just speech pathologists – become skilled at distinguishing the often hard-to-distinguish cases of an ELL student exhibiting signs of a communication disorder and an ELL student going through the normal, difficult process of acquiring a second (or third or fourth) language. The article, “Acquiring English as a Second Language: What’s ‘Normal,’ What’s Not,” by Roseberry-McKibbin and Brice, explains much of what teachers need to know:

To avoid unnecessarily referring ELL students to special education services, teachers should be well acquainted with the “normal phenomena” of language acquisition. The following are all things that might occur to ELL students that, on their own, do NOT indicate a disorder:

Interference – English errors might occur because the native language structure is interfering with the new English structure. The classic example is a native Spanish speaker who says, “the cat black,” because in Spanish adjective follow their nouns. This is obviously not evidence of a language disorder. But other normal phenomena are less obvious.

Silent Period – ELLs may “focus on listening and comprehension” when first exposed to English. This may result in the student not speaking for a long period, as they try to understand as much as they can by listening. In young children, this period might last as long as a year or more. (The analogy to an adult traveling in a foreign country is apt here.)

Code-switching – This is the “Spanglish” phenomenon and is not evidence of a disorder.

Language Loss – ELLs may lose some of their fluency in their native language if they do not receive reinforcement and instruction in that native language. This phenomenon is called “subtractive bilingualism.” This has obvious repercussions for students’ long-term lives and even their relationships with their families, especially family members who do not speak English.

BICS-CALP gap – There are two different types of language that ELLs must mater. Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) are the everyday communication skills needed to have casual conversation. On average, ELLs acquire BICS within two years. Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) refers to the academic language proficiency necessary to compete on equal terms with native speakers in academic, context-specific settings. This much more difficult type of language acquisition can take five to seven years to learn. The “problem” is during the period after a student has BICS but before she has CALP. Teachers may be fooled by the student’s conversational fluency into thinking she has a learning disability because she struggles still with academic language. The BICS-CALP gap must be recognized as a normal part of language acquisition and not evidence of a communication disorder or learning disability.

If educators, whether mainstream, special education, or speech, are aware of these normal phases, attributes, and set-backs involved in language acquisition, ELL students will stand a much better chance of receiving the support they actually need and not unnecessary special education services that may just detract from the language work they need to do.


Roseberry-McKibbin, Celeste, and Alejandro Brice. “Acquiring English as a Second Language: What’s ‘Normal,’ What’s Not.” American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. 2 August 2007. <http://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/easl.htm>.

This page was created by Dan Gordon