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Finding Flaw and Disorder

Samantha Torres offers strategies to help identify and address speech–language disorders in multilingual students

A child’s linguistic journey can have many complexities that parents may not recognize, especially when navigating the intricacies of multilingualism. Recent research conducted by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) has brought to light an uptick in referrals for hearing, speech, and language concerns among young children over the past two years.1 The study also reveals that only 28% of speech–language pathologists (SLPs) believe parents are familiar with the early warning signs of speech–language disorders.

This underscores the ongoing need for enhanced awareness and early intervention strategies across diverse linguistic contexts. Notably, English language learners (ELLs) represent the fastest-growing student population in the US, with projections indicating that one in four children in classrooms across the nation will be ELLs by 2025.2

Thus, it is becoming increasingly important to address the unique linguistic needs of all school-age children to foster an inclusive approach that spans speech disorders and the diverse journeys of ELLs.

Addressing Common Misconceptions
One of the most pervasive misconceptions about speech–language disorders is the belief that they solely concern a child’s ability to articulate words. While fostering age-appropriate language skills is a cornerstone of our work as SLPs, the scope of our practice extends far beyond this.

In the context of bilingual students, a prevalent misconception exists that exposure to two languages inherently leads to a delay in language development. However, extensive research refutes this notion, demonstrating that bilingualism, rather than hindering language acquisition, enhances vocabulary skills and cognitive flexibility. If a child experiences a speech or language delay, it will be evident in both languages, but it is not a result of acquiring two languages.

Identifying Early Warning Signs, Milestones, and Considerations
A nuanced understanding of early warning signs and milestones is vital for effective identification of speech–language disorders. Each child follows a unique developmental path, and ASHA’s evidence-based review accentuates key language milestones, particularly from birth to age three. Notably, insufficient exposure to environmental sounds stands out as a significant risk factor, contributing to language delays and learning difficulties in children. Therefore, it is critical to monitor a child’s speech milestones, especially from birth to age three. It is also worth noting that these milestones are based on studies of children in the US who are learning English.

Identifying speech and language disorders in bilingual children requires careful consideration, as language difficulties must manifest in both languages spoken by the student to be classified as a disorder. Otherwise, observed differences may simply reflect linguistic variations.

When distinguishing between typical language development variations and potential signs of a language disorder, it’s crucial to consider individual developmental timelines and cultural backgrounds. While recognizing that variability is normal, specific guidelines can aid in identification:
Developmental milestones—If a child is consistently one or two years behind typical language milestones for their age group, further assessment may be warranted.
Comprehension challenges—Difficulty understanding and following directions, particularly in both language 1 and language 2, could signal a language disorder.
Vocabulary delays—The presence of delays in vocabulary development, limited use of gestures, and struggles with sentence formation can be an important indicator.
Social interaction difficulties—Trouble engaging in conversations, initiating dialogue, and understanding age-appropriate social cues may indicate a language disorder.
Holistic assessment—Considering a child’s overall development is crucial. Language disorders may be associated with other diagnoses, emphasizing the importance of a comprehensive evaluation.

By intertwining early warning signs, developmental milestones, and specific guidelines for identification, educators, parents, and professionals can adopt a more cohesive and nuanced approach in addressing language concerns in multilingual students and ELLs.

Key Strategies and Activities to Support Development in and beyond Classroom Settings
Regardless of exposure to a second language, promoting language development in children involves creating a rich and supportive environment that encourages communication and vocabulary growth. Here are key strategies and activities that telepractitioners have found effective in supporting language development across traditional classrooms, virtual learning environments, and home settings:

Key Strategies for Educators
• Incorporate visuals: Visual aids, such as pictures, charts, and real-world objects, can provide context and support comprehension.
• Talk to students in their preferred languages: Whenever possible, engage students in conversations using their native languages to facilitate communication and build rapport.
• Provide early exposure to English: Expose students to English through songs, rhymes, and stories to gradually introduce them to the language in a fun and engaging manner.
• Utilize repetition for retention and memory development: Repeat key concepts, phrases, and vocabulary words to help students retain information and enhance their memories.

Activities for Educators and Parents
• Read books regularly: Reading exposes children to new vocabulary, grammar structures, and storytelling techniques, fostering a love for language and literacy.
• Encourage pretend games and narrative play: Imaginative play allows children to express themselves creatively, practice using language in different contexts, and develop problem-solving skills.
• Promote storytelling: Encourage children to retell stories, describe events, and create their own narratives to enhance their descriptive language skills and overall communication abilities.
• Discuss daily routines, activities, and experiences: Talking about daily routines and experiences helps children connect words to real-world objects and actions, expanding their functional vocabulary.
• Encourage self-expression: Asking open-ended questions and providing a supportive environment empowers children to express their thoughts, feelings, and ideas freely, contributing to their linguistic and emotional development.

By combining these approaches, educators and parents can create a nurturing and stimulating environment that supports the speech and language development of all children, including multilingual learners.

The landscape of speech–language disorders in school-aged children, especially those navigating multiple languages, is complex but navigable. Awareness, early intervention, and debunking common misconceptions are pivotal in ensuring that every child, regardless of linguistic background, has the opportunity to thrive in their language development journey. By fostering understanding among educators, school professionals, and parents, we can collectively contribute to a supportive environment that allows every child to reach their full linguistic potential.

Links
1. www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/poll-shows-increases-in-hearing-speech-and-language-referrals-more-communication-challenges-in-young-children-301810318.html
2. www.nea.org/resource-library/english-language-learners

Samantha Torres, CCC-SLP, is a bilingual speech–language pathologist (SLP) and clinical manager at VocoVision (www.vocovision.com), a leading teleservices provider for K–12 schools across the US. Sam has demonstrated expertise in both in-person education settings and telepractice, assisting culturally and linguistically diverse school-age children facing a range of communication disorders. In her role as a clinical manager at VocoVision, Sam offers valuable clinical support and fosters collaboration among telepractitioners, enabling them to deliver exceptional services to students with disabilities.

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