Screening and Evaluating Children who are Dual Language Learners: What Every Teacher Should Know

Determining if a child may need additional supports to develop and learn is every teacher’s responsibility. Screening helps a teacher know whether a child needs additional evaluation to determine if he or she will need specialized instruction and services, such as special education.

Ongoing evaluations help teachers monitor each child’s progress and development, adjust their instruction, and track a child’s learning of key concepts.

Evaluating young children who are dual language learners can present a challenge for teachers especially if they do not speak the same language as the children and the families they serve. Often teachers do not fully understand how dual language learning can impact young children’s development and performance in the classroom. Young dual language learners are at risk for being misdiagnosed, which can lead to them not receiving appropriate and adequate services.

The following ideas related to screening and ongoing evaluation for young dual language learners are based on research. They can help teachers better understand and support this growing population of children in our schools and programs.

1) Children who are considered “dual language learners” include those who are learning two or more languages before 3 years old, often from birth (simultaneous bilinguals) as well as those who are learning a new language after age 3 (sequential bilinguals).

Teachers need to understand that being a simultaneous or sequential bilingual will greatly impact how quickly a child can become fluent and proficient in English as well as his or her home language. Thus, prior to screening and evaluating a child who is a dual language learner, the teacher must first know if a child is a simultaneous or sequential language learner.

2) Children who are dual language learners can often tell which language to use with whom and in what setting. This skill is referred to as “interlocutor sensitivity.” 

Teachers need to understand how this sensitivity will influence the quality and quantity of the child’s interactions with her peers and adults. It can also affect the child’s performance in “testing” situations, depending on the child’s familiarity with the setting and with the person who is conducting the screening or evaluation.

3) The development of young dual language learners in each of their languages will vary depending on critical factors such as their exposure to and use of their languages in various settings. 

Teachers need to know from parents or other key people the extent to which a child is exposed to and uses various languages (e.g., English and others). This can help determine which language(s) to use when conducting screening and assessment. “Testing” in a child’s predominant language(s) will provide a more accurate picture of his or her skills both within and across languages.

4) The children’s parents and family members are critical sources of information about their development.

Teachers need to recognize the key role parents and family members have in supporting a child’s development. Teachers should embrace the fact that parents have firsthand knowledge of their children’s experiences and abilities. Therefore, teachers must partner with families when planning and conducting screening and assessment of children. This is especially critical when the teacher does not speak the child’s home language.

5) Being a dual language learner does not cause or lead to development delays in children.

Teachers need to support children’s continued use of their home languages while they are learning a new language. It is important for teachers to know that a child who demonstrates a delay in one language will also demonstrate a delay in the other language. This does not mean, however, that being exposed to more than one language will cause a language delay. In fact, research indicates children who maintain their home languages tend to have better academic outcomes in English than those whose home languages were not supported.

Rosa Milagros Santos

Dr. Rosa Milagros Santos is a professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on young children with disabilities and their families within the context of early intervention and early childhood special education services. Dr. Santos is currently the editor for Young Exceptional Children and serves on the editorial board for various research journals. She has authored numerous publications and has presented widely on topics related to working with families of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers with disabilities.