Referral of ESOL learners for LD should never happen!

My view is that the referral of ESOL learners for LD should NEVER happen. There are three major reasons for that, the first two of which are deeply intertwined:

1) I contend that it is essentially illegal to diagnose culturally and linguistically different learners using current methods in place for adults in this (USA) culture. According to US law (section 504), to be diagnosed with LD, a learner must have:

a) been diagnosed through use of validated, standardized tests designed for that purpose and

b)the tests must be administered by a qualified diagnostician.
No existing tests used in the diagnosis of LD have been validated on the adult ESOL learners in our programs. Tests published by commercial publishers will say that they have been normed (standardized and validated) on the percentage of ESOL learners that reflects the US population, but that population is NOT typical of the adult, many non or low-literate speakers of many languages and representatives of many cultures that are in your programs. If a test is not validated on the representative population, then the results do not tell anything meaningful about the person who took it compared to those on whom it was normed. To do this tests would have to be devised that were normed on low-literate Mexicans or Filipinos, high-literate Japanese, non-literate Hmong, etc etc--(but even as I write that, you can, I hope see, that that would be impossible, since development of a test for a non-literate culture like the Hmong is an oxymoron!! ) Not only is this a theoretical challenge in terms of language, it is more of a challenge in terms of how cultures interpret intelligence and difficulties in academic learning. In other words, cultures view learning difficulties in highly different ways-- so there is no guarantee that creating a test to reflect what we consider LD would in fact identify anything meaningful in people who speak another language and come from a different culture.

Furthermore, almost no diagnosticians are available who are qualified to do testing for learning difficulties in adults from other cultures who speak another first language. Just being bilingual does not necessarily qualify a diagnostician if she or he has not been well-trained in what cross cultural learning issues are and how languages impact learning English, etc.

Thus the conditions of the law are impossible to meet for most adult ESOL learners. Though some diagnosticians will tell you they can make the system work using pieces and parts of tests and other means, the results are always questionable because of 2.

2) Though moot because of (1) the second reason referral should not happen for ESOL learners is that the testing and evaluation process and tools are inherently biased for culturally and linguistically different persons. Testing bias, about which a great deal has been published, stems from unfamiliar formats, unfamiliar content and cultural values loaded into questions, and the level of language required to understand tests written for native English speaker by native English speakers. There is much to say about testing bias.

One of the reasons for linguistic bias is the result of one aspect of the normal linguistic pattern of two levels or vocabularies of language---BICS--which is basic interpersonal communication skills, or oral/survival English and CALPS or cognitive academic language proficiency skills, or the language needed for understanding tests, text books, directions and all other either uncontextualized language or the language of school and deep reading experience. CALPS levels are a significant and little heeded barrier it in adult ESOL--in all ESOL, actually--where learners are evaluated and essentially moved through program levels according to oral proficiency, and then encounter native language text in ABE or "pre-GED" classes. Typically the ESOL learners crash and burn --or are seen as having serious reading comprehension difficulties-- because they cannot manage the materials.

Just to give an idea of CALPS levels, at the college associated program where I taught for many years before moving into adult ESOL, our learners arrived with at least a high school education, and many had college or post-graduate educations in their language. When we tested these learners (many of whom had excellent oral English skills) in English reading using a test designed for native English speakers, their CALPS were typically at about 4th grade. Since they were attempting to be college students, our job was largely designed to improve CALPS through instruction in reading skills not decoding skills. The program was designed to bring them to about 8th grade level in 6 semesters --and give them good skills for continuing to build their reading vocabulary.

Research on CALPS indicates that usually it takes anywhere from 5 to 7 years under excellent ESOL delivery conditions for a learner's CALPS to be about equal to those of a native speaker of average achievement in school. BICS, on the other hand, are expected to be about optimal in 3 years or less.

3) This discussion leads to the third, and really the most important, reason why adult ESOL learners should not be referred for LD or even considered to have LD: there are a number of other critical factors which cause these learners to struggle and which, in my work, I find are almost always ignored.

Just briefly these factors are:

a) Poor phonological skills -- this is NOT phonics!! Phonological skills are the pre-literacy skills that support literacy and language acquisition: phonological awareness and phonological memory. These skills may be weak because of low education levels, difficulty transferring them from first language or a fundamental weakness--the only real LD we know of--i.e. dyslexia--but the latter instance is, in my experience, rare. Phonolgical memory is often impacted by the normal difficulty an adult learner has hearing new sounds in a new language and remembering them.

b) Adult language learners' needs are not being met: adult learners do not learn language as children do. Their brains are neurologically different and process sound differently. Also, adult learners are far more analytical than child learners. They want to know why. Thus they need to have direct, explicit instruction in the sound system of the language and they need language presented in clear, logical, linguistically manageable order. They also need a lot of support building the CALPS mentioned above. Just exposing them to language through conversation and randomly chosen reading is not sufficient. Instruction in decoding using methods and materials designed for adult struggling learners is also not helpful.

c) Cultural differences in learning and ideas about learning and teaching are not given sufficient attention. Adult ESOL learners often come from highly authoritative education systems which require memorizing, where teachers have all the power, and where interactive learning is never used. They are often dismayed, then, by our approach to education. This is not to be taken lightly. There is a new book out about how college foreign students have such a hard time doing college assignments the way their professors want them to. They very often end up doing the assignments they way they culturally interpret them. Homework expectations are often where adult ESOL teachers feel the cultural difference, although they usually do not recognize the difficulties as culturally based. They see learners as unable to be independent learners in the American model, or as uninterested in helping themselves learn, when in reality, these learners have never been asked to do independent learning and need, in my experience and observation, a great deal of explicit training in how to do that.

d) Educational differences/levels and experiences are not taken sufficiently into account. We as a culture have a very hard time comprehending the implications of coming from a preliterate culture or of being extremely low literate. I am often asked to consult on learning difficulties in learners who have no educational experience, no phonological skills that are normally built up as learners begin to prepare for literacy, and no world knowledge of the type gained through education ( and the CALPS that go with that) and are assumed to have LD because they cannot learn things for which they have no preparation. IN contrast, learners with higher literacy skills but low oral skills are most often treated just like the low or preliterate with low oral skills--and consequently get very bored or distressed because their real learning needs and desires are not met in the very basic oral conversation and basic ESOL literacy classes they end up in.

e) Health, physical functioning and mental health issues are impacting learning. ESOL learners typically ( but not always) have neglected their vision and hearing health and do not wear glasses or have old glasses. They do not realize how difficult learning is because of poor vision. Similarly, adults normally experience some hearing loss with advancing age, and others have been in situations or had illnesses that have compromised their hearing. Another problem is visual stress syndrome, where there is high sensitivity to fluorescent lights or bright light and things move or jiggle on the page. No one ever asks learners what they SEE when they look at a page. In my experience, learners relatively often report that things move, or there are flashes, or things smudge or many other problems. All of these types of vision problems are readily addressed with professionally designed colored plastic overlays. Health issues, too, can cause a lot of difficulty for learners, but because of cultural hesitance to bring attention to themselves as a problem learner or other reasons, they do not tell their teachers. Finally, many of our learners have experienced extreme trauma before they got here, or are suffering from significant culture shock for many months-- even years. Programs do not routinely screen adult learners for these issues nor teach teachers how to spot them, so they go unchecked.

f) The final category of problems causing adult ESOL learners to struggle so they look as if they have LD are what are politely called "pedagogically induced learning problems"--I did NOT invent this term!! It is used by others who write about this topic ( ESOL learners who may or may not have LD) in K-12. This includes having teachers who are not language teachers, who are not trained to work with culturally different adults, and who engage in counter productive practices such as using only visual and auditory channels for learning and ignoring all of factors 1 through 5.

If I ordered these factors in terms of impact, it would be tied for 2, 3 and 6, with the others coming in a close second.

For more on these issues, especially health etc. see the Focus on Basics Issue for November, 2005 ( ncsall.net) the article "Taking a closer look at ESOL learners who struggle." Also, see recent discussions on the English Language Learner discussion listserv hosted by NIFL, where I have explained some aspects of these issues in more depth.

Robin Lovrien Schwarz M.Sp.Ed:LD
902 S. 4th Avenue Wausau, WI 54401
715-298-0289 - 614-582-7673 - Fax: 715-2980538

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