ELL Assessment for Linguistic Differences vs. Learning Disabilities
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Assessment of Spanish-Language Students in U.S. 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)

Preliminary Assessment Considerations

Considerations Questions to ask Comments
The student’s unique language acquisition background

Was the child exposed/involved only with Spanish at home, with English first encountered when he or she entered school (a sequential learner),


Was the child exposed to two or more languages from birth (a simultaneous learner) (Hammer, Miccio and Wagstaff, 2003)?

Studies have shown that there are critical differences between the linguistic profiles of these two groups (Goldstein & Washington, 2001). When a child is learning two languages, he or she will apply aspects from the first (L1) and second (L2) language, and vice-versa. Therefore, the bilingual student will follow a “different developmental course of language development in each of their languages in comparison to monolingual children” (Kester & Peña, 2002, p.3).

The literature suggests that even the development of children’s phonological systems can differ when the child is learning more than one new language. Therefore, in order to assess a child’s language performance appropriately, the child’s language needs to be compared to that of other children with similar backgrounds and linguistic histories.

The geographic origins of the child or the child’s family

What country or region within a country is the child from?

(Each area, national as well as regional, may have its own unique linguistic patterns.)

Although Spanish is a common language spoken in so many different parts of the world, it must be acknowledged that there are linguistic variations between the Spanish as it is spoken in Spain and that Spanish varies from one Latin American country to another. In fact, there are not only variations between countries, but there are also regional variations within these countries. Some of these variations are:

  • second person verbal forms;
  • differences in pronunciation, intonation, and accent
  • vocabulary
The length of time that a child's family has been in the U.S.

Has the child’s family lived in the United States for ten years and adapted to the new culture, or

Did they just move to this country?

This can also influence the extent of the child’s acculturation process and, therefore, the strength of the influence of their native culture on their communication style and behaviors (also known as pragmatics).
Linguistic history as well as educational background

For instance, has the child been in a monolingual Spanish classroom for several years, or

in a bilingual classroom in which Spanish is spoken for part of the day?

The communication patterns of second language learners are expressed developmentally according to their growth and the stage of second language acquisition.

The data indicates that “L2’s acquisition follows a developmental course that is strikingly similar to that of L1. Sounds that are acquired late in the developmental sequence by monolingual speakers also tend to be acquired late by second language learners” (Mattes & Omark, 1991, p.11).

When you are faced with the question: “Are the errors or miscues in reading, 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 student’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 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 Spanish-speaking student, you need to have acquired the essential linguistic and cultural knowledge factors such as:

Linguistic Factors


  1. the main characteristics of English.
  2. the stages of second language acquisition and the levels of English
  3. the difference between fluency and proficiency (BICS & CALP)
  4. factors that influence second language acquisition

Language Specific

  1. the main characteristics of Spanish and how they differ from those of English.
  2. how the home language contributes to the Spanish studentís learning to understand, speak, read and write in English as a new language.
  3. similarities and differences between second language acquisition 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).

NOTE: Spanish-speaking students come from a diversity of countries and academic backgrounds. This site only focuses on those that come from Puerto Rico.

©2005 Maria de Lourdes Serpa.
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