ELL Assessment for Linguistic Differences vs. Learning Disabilities
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Assessment of Khmer Language Students in the US Schools

ELLs’ ‘errors’ or miscues in speaking, reading or writing, which can be explained by their primary language’s influence on English, are to be expected. These miscues are developmental, and they do not constitute a learning problem or (dis)ability. They are an indication of a natural phenomenon of linguistic transference from the primary to the second or the new language.

Serpa (2000)

In classroom assessment of Khmer speakers, educators need to become familiar with the main characteristics of the Khmer language and its influences on students learning to understand, speak, read and write in English as a new language. This is essential in order to better understand these students’ funds of knowledge and to better distinguish between linguistic differences and specific learning disabilities (Wilson-Portuondo, 2004).

When you are faced with the question: “Are the errors or miscues in reading or writing the result of a linguistic influence or are they an indication of a learning disability?” The first step is to ask yourself:

  • What do I already know about linguistically and culturally responsive assessment?
  • What essential questions do I have about my ELL’s language and cultural needs?
  • What knowledge do I need to seek that will support my effectiveness as a teacher/assessor of these students?

To begin to explore the answer to some of these questions, you are invited to link to the STARTING POINT before initiating a referral or any eligibility assessment of an ELL at (beginning, intermediate or advanced) levels of English proficiency.

Before any valid interpretation of the assessment data collected on a Khmer-speaking student, you need to have acquired the essential linguistic and cultural knowledge factors such as:

Linguistic Factors


  1. the main characteristics of English (Fillmore & Snow, 2000)

  2. the stages of second language acquisition and the levels of English

  3. the difference between fluency and proficiency (BICS & CALP) (Cummins, 2003)

  4. factors that influence second language acquisition

Language Specific

  1. the main characteristics of Khmer and how these differ from those of English
  2. how the home language contributes to the Khmer student’s learning to understand, speak, read and write in English as a new language
  3. similarities and differences between expected second language acquisition behaviors and learning disabilities indicators

Cultural Factors


  1. cultural diversity pedagogy
  2. level of acculturation of the student

Student Specific

  1. studentís family cultural background (e.g. values, beliefs, child-rearing practices and behaviors) and how similar or how different it is from U. S. majority culture.
  2. influence of culture on assessment, learning and motivation

To be able to explore the distinction between linguistic differences and learning disabilities, many educators need to enrich their professional knowledge with an upgrade in diversity education, which focuses on cultural and linguistically specific information (Wilson-Portuondo, 2004).

©2005 Maria de Lourdes Serpa.
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