Issues In Diagnosing E L L Students With Communication Disorders

By Emily Young


The appropriate evaluation of students who are English Language Learners (ELLs) and have potential language-learning difficulties is a dilemma faced by more and more clinicians. There are two main issues to consider in thinking about ELL students and communication disorders:

1.) Some students who are ELL are being labeled as having communication disorders, while in fact they are only progressing through normal language acquisition.
2.) ELL students who actually do have communication disabilities are going undiagnosed due to the lack of knowledgeable bilingual staff to recognize the disability.

Teachers should be aware of both of these issues in teaching ELL students who may have struggles in language and speech acquisition due NOT to their learning a new language but due to a communication disorder.

Details about the Two Issues

The first issue is described in Dr. Johanne Paradis’s “Grammatical Morphology in Children Learning English as a Second Language,” where she proves that ELL students have a characteristic expressive language when learning English that is similar to the expressive language displayed by students with specific language impairment. This conclusion from her study illustrates why so many ELL students might be mislabeled as having a communication disorder. This problem occurred in DC less than 30 years ago, as the development of Bell Vocational School came into existence. Maria Tukeva, the current principal of Bell High School, was working with students who were labeled as “disabled” by the District of Columbia, but discovered that they did not have a disability, they were just not proficient in the English language. Such mislabeling still occurs today, and teachers should be keenly aware of the similarities in language expression between second language acquisition and communication disorders. Both types of students have learning struggles to overcome, but these two situations are distinctly different, as are means that they need for supporting their learning are distinctly.

Paradis’s research also illustrates the difficulty in diagnosing ELL students with communication disorders in the English language because their natural acquisition of the English language can illustrate the same characteristics as a communication impairment. This information suggests that such communication disorders may be better diagnosed through an ELL student’s native language.

What Teachers Can Do

Teachers first need to be able to identify second-language acquisition in ELL students in order to identify if there is a disorder present in individual students. They need to be familiar with the types of communication disabilities, including stuttering, language learning, speech problems, listening problems, cleft palates, etc. Teachers should also be familiar with ways of diagnosing a communication disorder for ELL students, and particularly should focus on diagnosing the communication disorder within the student’s first language and avoid diagnosis through English if at all possible. Teachers should utilize interpreters if necessary.

A good source book for diagnosing Spanish-speaking students with communication disorders is the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals, 4th Edition, published by the Psychological Corporation in 2005. This edition mirrors the original format in English but is in Spanish, and contains information on how to diagnose ELL Spanish-speaking students with communication disorders. It also contains the diagnostic tests necessary to determine if the Spanish-speaking student has a communication disorder, including a key with which types of tests to administer:

Question 1: “Is there evidence of a language disorder in the student?”
Diagnostic Tool: Core subtests

Question 2: “What is the nature of the disorder?”
Diagnostic Tool: Supplementary Subtests

Question 3: “Which related or underlying clinical behaviors are present?”
Diagnostic Tool: Phonological Awareness test, Word Associations test, Working Memory test, RAN test

Question 4: “How does the disorder affect classroom performance and social interactions?”
Diagnostic Tool: Oral Language Samples, Pragmatics Checklists.


Jangdon, H. (2006). Bilingual Therapies: Spanish Speech and Language Pathology. Retrieved on July 29, 2007, from

Paradis, J. (2005). Grammatical Morphology in Children Learning English as a Second Language. Retrieved on July 29, 2007, from