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Immigrant Children Misdiagnosed As Language-impaired

August 25, 2005
University of Alberta
Immigrant children still mastering the English language risk being shuffled into special education services they don't need, because of errors in assessment for speech problems, according to a new University of Alberta study.

Immigrant children still mastering the English language risk beingshuffled into special education services they don't need, because oferrors in assessment for speech problems, according to a new Universityof Alberta study.

The study showed that the expressive language characteristics oftypically developing children learning English as a second language aresimilar to the English spoken by monolingual children who have specificlanguage impairment. "The errors they make when they speak English arenearly identical to the errors children make when they arelanguage-impaired," said Dr. Johanne Paradis, a linguistics professorat the University of Alberta.

The study appears in the July, 2005 edition of Language, Speech & Hearing Services in Schools.

In studying 24 children aged four to seven who have beenlearning English as a second language for an average of 9.5 months, Dr.Paradis discovered that their accuracy rates and error patterns weresimilar to those reported in monolingual children who had beendiagnosed with speech language impairment. The children were tested intheir usage of verbs, prepositions and determiner words like 'a' and'the'.

"The existing similarities, along with large individualdifferences in how quickly children learn English, could result inmisdiagnosis and therefore be a cause of unnecessary referrals tospeech therapy services," Dr. Paradis said. This phenomenon could bepart of a larger problem that has been widely acknowledged in theUnited States that linguistic minority children are statisticallyover-represented in all areas of special education," said Dr. Paradis.

This overlap in linguistic characteristics between Englishsecond language children and language-impaired children is an issue formany countries: Canada, the U.S.A., the United Kingdom and Australia."

And while it may appear beneficial to have immigrant childrenenrolled for focused linguistic attention by receiving therapyservices, the youngsters may suffer stigmatization, Paradis said."Their parents may believe there is something wrong with the child. Andreceiving special education services can colour a child's educationfuture and self-esteem."

Nor is it a good use of scarce resources for special education,Dr. Paradis noted. "The services need to be there for the children whoreally need them."

The method of language testing for immigrant children must bechanged, Dr. Paradis added. "The use of English standardized tests withnon-native English-speakers is not a good practice. You can'tuncritically use tests developed for native speakers with kids who havebeen exposed to English for just one year." As part of the study, thechildren were administered a standardized test for languagedevelopment, and nearly all of them scored as if they werelanguage-impaired.

Young children learning English can be expected to makegrammatical errors, well into the second year of their experiencespeaking the language, and more appropriate expectations need to be setwhen assessing the youngsters, Paradis said. She suggested that insteadof comparing their skills to those of monolingual English-speakingchildren, they be compared to the skills of their peers; otheryoungsters who are also learning English as a second language.


Paradis' study was funded by the Alberta Heritage Foundation forMedical Research and by the Social Sciences and Humanities ResearchCouncil of Canada.

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University of Alberta. "Immigrant Children Misdiagnosed As Language-impaired." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 August 2005. <>.
University of Alberta. (2005, August 25). Immigrant Children Misdiagnosed As Language-impaired. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 23, 2017 from
University of Alberta. "Immigrant Children Misdiagnosed As Language-impaired." ScienceDaily. (accessed February 23, 2017).