Assessment for Children Learning Two Languages

This report provides suggestions and recommendations to better serve culturally and linguistically diverse children and families. Head Start service providers will find this information particularly valuable as it offers an in depth look into the unique needs, challenges, and opportunities related to supporting bilingual and multilingual children. All information was pulled from a national needs assessment of Head Start programs, and its recommendations include both local and national best practices and approaches.

The following is an excerpt from Dual Language Learning: What does it take?.

Assessment for Children Learning Two Languages

See PDF version: Dual Language Learning: What Does It Take?[PDF, 661KB]

Focus group participants reported that most Head Start programs use monolingual language assessments to assess language and literacy development in children learning two languages. This is largely due to the lack of appropriate language and literacy assessments for children learning two languages, further complicated by the lack of knowledge regarding the problematic use of monolingual tools to assess these children. Additionally, the vast majority of child development assessments that assess all domains of learning and development rely heavily on the use of language to access children. If these assessments are not linguistically and culturally appropriate, they cannot provide an accurate and comprehensive assessment of a child’s development and learning.

Use of inappropriate tools and lack of understanding of language acquisition may lead to a misdiagnosis, over-diagnosis, or a lack of identification of true language development concerns. Using only monolingual tools cannot provide an accurate picture of total language and literacy development, nor correctly assess typical stages of second language acquisition.

Furthermore, children face a double layer of complexity and challenge if they are both striving to learn a new language while also dealing with special needs with respect to language learning or other developmental milestone. These children and their families, require a great deal of support, which can be particularly challenging when language barriers limit full communication with parents.

Head Start program staff, TA providers, and other Head Start partners stated that there was a tremendous need in the field for culturally and linguistically appropriate assessments as well as for staff training in assessment skills. Participants specified the need for—

  • Linguistically and culturally appropriate child development assessments in all domains of learning and development for preschoolers, infants, and toddlers who are learning two languages in multiple language sets.
  • Language and literacy development assessments for preschoolers, infants, and toddlers learning two languages in multiple language sets (i.e. English/Spanish, English/Farsi, English/Vietnamese, etc.).
  • Environmental assessments of the factors affecting language acquisition, such as—
    • Degree and length of exposure to English
    • Home environment language use
    • Parental language goals for child
    • Family/cultural language patterns and traditions
    • Trauma related to immigration or other experiences that may affect, language use or development
    • Child temperament
  • Staff training (i.e. in the use of assessment tools, soliciting parent input, conducting observation, etc.), at the program level as well as the TA provider/consultant level, in conducting language and literacy development assessments, as well as child development assessments in all domains of learning and development for children who are learning two languages.
  • Staff training in how best to learn from and speak with parents about their child’s assessments in culturally sensitive ways.
  • Strategies and tips for distinguishing between the normal phases of dual language development and behavioral concerns or perceived language delays that may require intervention. For example, some children may be placed in speech therapy when in fact they are simply going through the typical “observational and listening phase” of learning a second language. Alternatively, staff may miss identifying a behavioral concern or developmental delay that requires intervention. At times, for instance, parents reported that they thought their child was ignored or not paid adequate attention by teachers because teachers may not have had the skills to work with children who are English learners.

Assessment for Children Learning Two Languages. Dual Language Learning: What Does It Take? Head Start Dual Language Report. HHS/ACF/OHS. 2008. English.

Last Reviewed: July 2009

Last Updated: April 10, 2015