Complex Communication Needs + ELL students = One Confused SLP
A decent portion of my caseload consists of students with moderate-to-complex communication needs. I really enjoy working with these students and am thrilled each time I see growth in their communication skills through any modality. These students use speech, signs, gestures, vocalizations, PECS, AAC devices and any combination thereof to express their wants, needs and ideas. In the last few years I've noticed a growth of one particular sub-population of these students - students with complex communication needs who are English Language Learners (ELLs). This adds another layer to unravel for students who already have high needs in the area of functional communication skills.
A few months ago I talked to an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher about this very topic. She has made the same observation as I have: there are more and more students who are ELLs who also have moderate-complex communication needs. I know how to work with students with communication difficulties. She knows how to work with students for whom English is a second language. However, neither of us has come across much information in terms of research or therapy for working with these students. The educators with whom I've spoken to regarding ELL students with complex communication needs have all indicated they pretty much have no training in how to assess or work with these students.
Despite my basic knowledge of American Sign Language and my below average skills in Spanish, I am fluent in one language and one language only - English. The teachers I work with also only know and teach one language - English. So, herein lies the problem. The students do not all speak the same home language either; in the few years none of my ESL students have spoken the same language as another ESL student on my caseload, rather up to 5 different languages! The majority of students I've worked with who are ELLs hear little to no English at home; however, English is the only language they hear all day in school. For non-verbal students and those with emerging verbal skills, this presents quite a challenge. There have been many times I've heard students vocalizing using sounds that are not English phonemes, and I'm left to wonder, "Are they babbling in their home language?" It is hard to informally assess a child's understanding of basic classroom vocabulary (i.e., color words, toys, foods) when we're presenting the words in English, when it is very possible they've only heard the words in their home language.
All of my speech-language instruction is delivered in English. I find that using picture representations (i.e., icons) of common, functional, and core vocabulary words and verbally labeling words in English has been helpful for some of my students. I've had students who were ELLs successfully increase their expressive vocabularies using spoken words and sign, learn to use the PECS method with icons, and others learn to use AAC devices, all of which are in English. However, I still can't help but be left with a nagging feeling. Am I doing everything I should be doing for these students? Are the strategies I use for English-speaking emerging communicators the same as students who are from homes where English isn't spoken?
I would love to hear input from other school-based SLPs on this topic. How does your district assess ELLs with complex communication needs? Do your ESL teachers work with these students? Have you found any helpful resources and strategies related to this topic?