Difference or Disorder? When should I refer my language-learning student?


by Jennifer Kirschner & Rebecca Fox

How does a teacher know when a student whose first language is different from the ELL Photolanguage of instruction is appropriate for a referral for a speech-language evaluation?

Some stages of language development can seem concerning but are normal patterns.

Other times, there might be red flags you should not discount, regardless of language background!

Typical Second Language Development

  • Silent period: This first part of language acquisition can last as long as a year! Young children can have long silent periods.
  • Interference/ transfer: Student’s English errors mirror normal first-language structure.
  • ⇒ “house red” instead of “red house.”
  • Code-switching: Changing language in the middle of a phrase or sentence.
  • ⇒ “I like tu camisa.”
  • Grammatical errors: As a child learns a second language, you may hear mistakes similar to those a toddler makes when learning their first language. These are considered developmental.
  • Language loss: If a child does not use their first language, they will lose it! This can impact overall language ability.  Encourage families to use their native language at home to give their children a rich language experience.

red flag       RED FLAGS!          red flag

  • A parent is concerned about child’s language and communication.
  • A family history of language disabilities.
  • Student has a history of ear infections.
  • Student has a history of learning problems in their primary language.
  • Development and/or language skills are delayed compared to siblings.
  • Student’s growth seems lower compared to other students with a similar cultural and language background.
  • Lack of progress with interventions.
  • Inappropriate social skills.


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