We are pleased to bring you the 2018 Volume 34 (Spring) issue of MinneTESOL Journal!

This issue focuses on advocacy and instructional practice resting on the strengths and unique identities of English Language Learners (ELLs) of all ages, and offers two unique practice-oriented pieces for K-12 and higher education.

As will be made clear in these articles, strengths-focused advocacy of ELLs requires precision and the distinguishing of unique learning needs from linguistic deficits. In their article, Labels as Limitations, 2017 Minnesota English Learner Education Conference (MELEd) keynote Tatyana Kleyn and colleague Nancy Stern examine the unintended negative consequences of teachers using common labels in English language education; the authors propose more accurate labels that can highlight a learner’s linguistic assets. Harold B. Allen award Winner Kristi Herman Hill, in her article, Education and Advocacy for Secondary English Learners with Limited Formal Education (SLIFE), describes the unique educational and cultural backgrounds of SLIFE and proposes a multi-tiered approach to improving their educational experiences in their new communities. Finally, in Language Difference or Disorder? authors Kelyn Gress and Elizabeth Hill explain how this critical distinction can best be assessed among ELLs, through the lens of speech language pathology.

Bringing strengths-focused advocacy into practice, the multi-media annotated bibliography Sankofa Literature by Rebecca Lauer and Camille Primoli features poetry, narrative, and short stories that reflect the rich and diverse identities and cultures of multi-lingual learners in their classrooms. In a second practice-oriented piece, Developing Critical Thinking: Framing Wolcott and Lynch’s 5-Stage Method for Argumentative Essay Writing, 2017 MELEd presenter Matt Delaini describes a scaffolded process for guiding ELLs, whose past learning experiences may ill-equip them for academic writing in the US, toward successful evidence-based argumentation.

This journal issue features a few “firsts”. As editors, we congratulate Gress and Hill and also Lauer and Primoli, MA students at the University of Minnesota, College of Education and Human Development, on their publications here – their first publications in an academic journal. This work, shared with you in the same issue featuring work of more experienced scholars and practitioners, illustrates the journal’s commitment to simultaneously mentoring new authors and ensuring quality and relevant literature to support the work of English language educators. Finally, the Spring 2018 issue welcomes Dr. Jenifer Vanek, MinneTESOL Journal’s Technical Editor, into the expanded role of Senior Co-Editor. As her co-editor, I (Jen Ouellette-Schramm) am delighted with the energy, experience, and expertise that she brings to co-leading and developing the journal. Below is a short bio of Dr. Vanek:

Jen Vanek is a teacher educator whose research, publications, and presentations support teachers in the areas of language education, digital literacy, and online learning. She received her PhD from the Second Languages Education program at the University of Minnesota. She has  taught ESOL to adolescents and adults in secondary schools, community based organizations, factories, and university-based intensive English language programs.

Please read, enjoy, share and “like” the excellent pieces in this issue!


ESL students struggling to create engaging thesis statements and develop argumentative essays may be blocked by the gap between existing and expected educational schema. Wolcott and Lynch’s 5-Stage method for developing critical thinking offers a route by which students can bridge these gaps.

Thesis-driven argumentative essays can be an excellent vehicle for introducing university-level English as a Second Language (ESL) students to academic conventions, research methods, and critical thinking skills. Many of these students, however, submit papers that look stylistically proper but lack an engaging thesis or argumentative development. One possible explanation for this issue centers on differences in educational schema – many ESL students come from educational backgrounds that do not emphasize critical thinking in the same ways that American universities do (McCargar, 1993). For ESL instructors tasked with preparing their students for future argumentative writing assignments, it can be difficult to create a scaffold that effectively bridges existing student schema and the critical thinking underpinnings of the argumentative genre.

Starting a schema-centered conversation, one that explores both the thinking assumed by thesis-driven argumentative essays and the possible interpretive frameworks that ESL students bring to the classroom, can help to prepare these students not just for argumentative writing assignments, but also for the many academic discussions, debates, presentations, and research projects they are likely to encounter in their university careers.

The Argumentative Essay as a Gateway

The thesis-driven essay is steeped in the liberal arts tradition, an educational schema that emphasizes both critical thinking and participation in democratic government (Brint, Riddle, Turk-Bicakci, and Levy, 2005). American leaders like Thomas Jefferson (1816; as cited in Kaminski, 2005), Woodrow Wilson (1909), and Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953) have extolled the virtues of a citizenry trained in discerning thought and have also pointed to education as a means of achieving that end (Kaminski, 2005). Although Barack Obama placed emphasis on the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields in a 2014 speech (Jaschik, 2014), and Donald Trump has questioned funding for the arts and humanities (Nossel, 2017), the idea of the liberal arts mindset as a necessary companion to STEM and business majors is still very much in play (Dekat, 2017; Gaposchkin, 2015; Klebnikov, 2015). At some point in their university careers, ESL students are very likely to encounter this thesis-oriented, liberal arts element of the American educational landscape, whether it be in their major, a general requirement, an elective, or an honors capstone project. As a manifestation of liberal arts thinking, the thesis-driven essay has the potential to act as a gateway into that educational schema.

Considering ESL Student Schema

For many ESL students, however, the liberal arts mindset is not a key piece of their educational background. Currently, according to the Institute of International Education’s (IIE) Open Doors Report (2017), 50 percent of international students coming into the United States are from China (33%) and India (17%). Many of these students, and others from nations with a non-Western educational schema, may be trained in a classroom atmosphere that can be more authority-focused and place less emphasis on critical thinking as practiced in a liberal arts setting (Aaron, 2016; McCargar, 1993). The IIE (2017) further notes that these international students are heavily favoring business and STEM majors. These factors – educational background and area of concentration – suggest a general trend away from the humanities and the liberal arts, and therefore a lower level of familiarity with the critical thinking techniques practiced there. This is not to say that critical thinking is absent from these educational environments or from business and STEM majors; a false demarcation between a liberally focused American classroom and an authoritarian Eastern one, or even a humanities classroom versus a business or STEM classroom, obscures complexity on both sides and hinders understanding more than it helps it (Kumaravadivelu, 2003). It is to say, however, that these students may require extra attention in developing critical thinking vis-à-vis the argumentative essay and other thesis-driven liberal arts practices such as presentations, discussions, debates, and other tasks of a similar nature.

Argumentative Essays as Evidence

ESL instructors can look to student writing itself for evidence that their students are struggling to produce thesis-driven essays or to develop critically thought-out arguments. Common types of essay challenges include what Bean (2011) refers to as ‘And Then’, ‘All About’, and ‘Data Dump’ essays. These essays either add information indiscriminately in a chronological or ongoing ‘story’ format (the ‘And Then’), attempt to include an overabundance of encyclopedia-like information without any real overarching thesis (the ‘All About’), or simply ‘dump’ information in the hopes that the reader will make some organizational sense out of it (the ‘Data Dump’). Taken altogether, problem essays such as these point to an issue with framing gathered information. Students may have found information but may not know how to think about what they have found. This is where an attempt at introducing a liberal arts / critical thinking perspective can prove useful. Given that schema govern the interpretation of input, a gradual introduction of critical thinking methods to the ESL writer seems advisable (McVee, Dunsmore, & Gavelek, 2005). In order to bridge existing student schema to the US educational schema, for example, there must be a process of constructing, testing, and adjusting (Derry, 1996). All students encountering new information need time to incorporate it into their worldview, but this is especially true for ESL students who are balancing new language, new methodologies, and new subject matter.

Five Stages and a Local Lens

When it comes to a gradual introduction to the liberal arts and critical thinking underpinnings of thesis-driven writing, WolcottLynch Associates Idea Paper #37 (Lynch & Wolcott, 2001) provides a five-stage treasure trove of scaffolded technique.

Stage 0

It begins at Stage 0, aimed at students who are focused on finding the ‘right’ answer and have trouble with grey areas, questioning experts, evaluating evidence, and examining conclusions. Stage 0 tasks include activities that place a low cognitive burden on students’ existing schema. Repeating, paraphrasing, summarizing, describing, and listing all work with the desire to find the answer while still getting the student to process arguments (Lynch & Wolcott, 2001). The open nature of the staged framework also allows ESL instructors to flavor the process however they see fit. A grounding in local issues, for example, can be provided by selecting op-ed pieces from the local newspaper. While there are complex articles in any op-ed section, there are usually also a number of short and simply reasoned topical arguments. For example, an instructor working from the Duluth News Tribune in 2017 might have seized upon the controversy surrounding the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad (LS & MR) which was, at the time, much discussed in the paper.  The thread of the argument could have been picked up in any number of pieces, including the opinion piece Save Mud Lake Causeway, Scenic Train (Hillmer, 2017). Like many such articles, it illustrates a simple local argument with low linguistic demand – of 292 total words in the piece, 92% fall within the 3,000 most common words in the English language (as measured using Compleat Web VP, an online program which scans text and analyzes it for word frequency).

Stage 1

Once students have picked up the thread of an argument, they can move to Stage 1 activities and begin stacking supporting evidence. As they gather new sources, students can be directed to explore them (Lynch & Wolcott, 2001). 

An excellent companion to this process are guides that direct learners to focus on the quality of the evidence and the credibility of authors. This can involve modeling the investigation of sources with worksheets like the Argument Guide or the Credibility Guide to help students look at the types of support used to back a conclusion, whether there is preponderance of fact or opinion, the expertise of the author, and the amount of corroboration (Fisher, 2011; Pattison, 2015). This can all still be presented in terms of finding ‘right’ answers – for example, an author either does or does not have expertise, and facts are either used or they are not. If op-ed pieces from the local newspaper were used in Stage 0, students could also look on or around the same date to other op-ed pieces and news articles on the same topic. Continuing with the example of the instructor working with the Save Mud Lake Causeway, Scenic Train (Hillmer, 2017) op-ed piece from the Duluth News Tribune, an instructor could then introduce related articles on the same topic. For instance, LS & MR Faced with a Proposal from Duluth that Would Shorten their Route (Matt, 2017) appeared on the KBJR6 site and Endangered Railroad: The Lake Superior & Mississippi (Isaacs, 2015) appeared on the Heritage Rail Alliance site. Both articles added to the stance of the original op-ed article by underscoring the danger to the railroad and adding support for its preservation, thus allowing students to collect evidence in favor of their initial understanding of the issue.   

Stage 2

As students gather research (either independently or instructor-led, as the case may warrant) and try to stack evidence in support of the initial argument they read, it is also helpful if they can either find different perspectives or if the instructor can introduce them. Fortunately, the op-ed section of most local newspapers is fertile ground for contrasting opinions on issues of the moment. The dissonance inherent in these differing views can be used to move students into Stage 2 activities, where they can be asked to present and compare different sides of the issue. That comparison also lends itself to a discussion of bias (Lynch & Wolcott, 2001). Again, guidelines like those provided in the Argument Guide and the Credibility Guide can be used to help students as they begin to explore what bias means. They can be directed to look at how balanced the coverage is in a particular source, whether or not generalizations are made, and if extreme language is present (Fisher, 2011; Pattison, 2015).

With source quality becoming more of an issue, students can also choose, or be helped to choose, better sources. The Lake Superior and  Mississippi Railroad issue, for example, was part of a controversial environmental clean-up of the St. Louis River that involved local history, political disagreements, tourism issues, and environmental concerns. Addressing the larger context of the issue, as in this case, was a gateway to more serious research and to higher-value sources like the EPA’s Spirit Lake Legacy Act Cleanup (EPA, n.d.) and the MPCA’s St. Louis River Area of Concern Sediment Cleanup Sites (MPCA, n.d). Many local issues will lend themselves to such higher-value research. For example, a controversy over a grocery store’s decision to stop offering plastic bags could lead to wider research on pollution and climate change, and an op-ed controversy over all-terrain vehicles on roads could segue into research on tourism or road safety. Most issues appearing in the op-ed sections of local papers will have a wider context that instructors can use to advantage.   

Stages 3 and 4

The conclusion of this process can be found in Stage 3, where students are able to use the evaluative techniques they have practiced to reach reasoned conclusions, and also in Stage 4, where they are better able to appreciate the ongoing nature of a knowledge-building academic argument (Lynch & Wolcott, 2001). In the case of the Mud Lake Causeway, it becomes harder for students to say whether historical import and tourism outweigh environmental and budgetary concerns, but when they do pick a side, they have been through the material extensively enough to know why. And this is a key feature of the five-stage process that WolcottLynch Associates have laid out – the gradual, scaffolded nature of the process forces students to take a granular approach to a given topic. Their journey becomes their argument, and this in turn can become their essay.


It is sometimes easy to forget that ESL students may be struggling with far more than language when they make the shift from the educational schema of their home culture to the educational schema of the United States. Many of the tasks that these students are asked to invest themselves in – argumentative essays, discussions, debates, and presentations – tacitly assume a familiarity with liberal arts values and critical thinking which may not be in place. In this sense, problematic argumentative essays that lack well-developed thesis statements or cohesive arguments can serve a diagnostic function – they can alert instructors to the need for a more scaffolded introduction to the liberal arts / critical thinking mindset underlying such assignments. The Wolcott and Lynch 5-Stage method for developing critical thinking can be a useful tool for such scaffolding – it provides guidance for a wide range of levels, can be easily segmented, and lends itself well to increasing student familiarity with local culture. Best of all, student success can be as simple as a lower incidence of problematic argumentative essays and as complex as a deeper appreciation and application of the schema underpinning American liberal arts practices.  Regardless of where ESL students start in the process, they will find tools that will enable them to better understand and participate in their adopted educational community.


Aaron, S. (2016, June 26). Can India have a future without critical thinkers? Hindustan Times. Retrieved from https://www.hindustantimes.com/analysis/can-india-have-a-future-without-critical-thinkers/story-0fkofaGoIj7Rtjsd1EJCcM.html

Bean, J. (2011). Engaging ideas (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brint, S., Riddle, M., Turk-Bicakci, L., & Levy, C. (2005). From the liberal to the practical arts in American colleges and universities: Organizational analysis and curricular change. The Journal of Higher Education, 76(2), 151-180. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3838721

Complete Web VP. (n.d.). Retrieved May 5, 2018, from https://www.lextutor.ca/vp/comp/

Dekat, K. (2017). Liberal arts vs. STEM: Does it have to be one or the other? Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319099976_Liberal_Arts_vs_STEM_Does_it_have_to_be_one_or_the_other

Derry, S. (1996). Cognitive schema theory in the constructivist debate. Educational Psychologist, 31(3/4), 163-174.

Eisenhower, D. (1953). Address at the inauguration of the 22d president of the College of  William and Mary at Williamsburg. The American Presidency Project. Retrieved from http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=9850

EPA. (n.d.). Spirit Lake Legacy Act Cleanup. EPA. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/st-louis-river-bay-aoc/spirit-lake-legacy-act-cleanup

Fisher, A. (2011). Critical thinking. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gaposchkin, C. (2015, November 5). Here are some more reasons why liberal arts matter. Dartmouth Engineer Magazine. Retrieved from https://engineering.dartmouth.edu/news/here-are-some-more-reasons-why-liberal-arts-matter

Hillmer, D. (2017, October 20). Reader’s view: Save Mud Lake causeway, scenic train. Duluth News Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/opinion/letters/4347006-readers-view-save-mud-lake-causeway-scenic-train

Institute of International Education. (2017). Open door 2017 fast facts. Institute of International Education. Retrieved from https://www.iie.org/Research-and-Insights/Open-Doors/Fact-Sheets-and-Infographics/Infographics

Isaacs, A. (2015, March 7). Endangered railroad: The Lake Superior & Mississippi. Heritage Rail Alliance. Retrieved from http://www.atrrm.org/blog/2015/03/endangered-railroad-the-lake-superior-mississippi/

Jaschik, S. (2014, January 31). Obama vs. art history. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/01/31/obama-becomes-latest-politician-criticize-liberal-arts-discipline

Kaminski, J. (Ed.). (2005). Citizen Jefferson. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Klebnikov, S. (2015, June 19). Liberal arts vs. STEM: The right degrees, the wrong debate. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/sergeiklebnikov/2015/06/19/liberal-arts-vs-stem-the-right-degrees-the-wrong-debate/#720fbf0c7bbe

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2003). Problematizing Cultural Stereotypes in TESOL. TESOL Quarterly, 37(4), 709-719.

Lynch, C. and Wolcott, S. (2001). Idea paper 37. WolcottLynch Associates. Retrieved from https://www.ideaedu.org/Portals/0/Uploads/Documents/IDEA%20Papers/IDEA%20Papers/IDEA_Paper_37.pdf

Matt, A. (2017, June 29). LS & MR faced with a proposal from Duluth that would shorten their route. KBJR6. Retrieved from http://www.kbjr6.com/story/35783490/lsmr-faced-with-a-proposal-from-duluth-that-would-shorten-their-route

McCargar, D. (1993). Teacher and student role expectations: Cross-cultural differences and implications. The Modern Language Journal, 77, 192-207.

McVee, M., Dunsmore, K., and Gavelek, J. (2005). Schema theory revisited. Review of Educational Research, 75(4), 531-566.

MPCA. (n.d.). St. Louis River Area of Concern Sediment Cleanup Sites. MPCA. Retrieved May 5, 2018 from https://www.pca.state.mn.us/waste/st-louis-river-area-concern-sediment-cleanup-sites

Nossel, S. (2017, January 26). Donald Trump’s assault on the Enlightenment. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/01/26/donald-trumps-assault-on-the-enlightenment-nea-neh-funding-cuts/

Pattison, T. (2015). Critical reading. Montreal: Pearson.

Wilson, W. (1909). The meaning of a liberal education. High School Teachers Association of New York, 3, 19-31.



This annotated bibliography shares a list of fiction featuring multicultural characters and appropriate for a wide-range of readers. Through a mix of poetry, narrative, and short story our goal in creating this bibliography was to document a collection of multicultural literature that reflects the diversity of English language learners (ELLs) in the U.S. and strives to include groups that often remain absent from our literary canon. If you prefer a more visual format, please check-out the Haiku Deck linked to here.

The theme of this collection of children’s literature is Sankofa.  The Sankofa, a widely used African-American symbol, depicts a bird that looks back while it flies forward. This collection covers a wide range of topics including Somali folktales, literature that honors the traditions of Islam, and stories highlighting the immigrant and refugee experience. It also address themes of adjusting to a new life in the United States of America and the language acquisition process that many ELLs experience, thus allowing us to look back while moving forward.sankofa bird link to haiku deck

The literature included here may provide useful alternatives for teachers with ELLs in their English Language Arts (ELA) classes.  Many ELLs find it hard to identify with the content represented in most of the traditional literature because it is often western-focused. Our goal with this annotated bibliography is to incorporate a list of literary examples that resonate with ELLs in grades 5-8, which can help students make text-to-self connections with the literature. Students are able to comprehend text better when they can make highly personal connections to the reading materials (Keene & Zimmerman, 1997). The selections could be used in classrooms for a combination of independent reading, literature circle options or whole group readings.

In addition to the list below, we have included a more visually interesting presentation, which you can see on the slides/video. It is our belief that being able to see a book’s cover art, read a synopsis and consider ideas for classroom application all in the same place will attract teachers to texts they may have otherwise overlooked.

The Literature

Addasi, M. (2008). The white nights of Ramadan. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press.

The White Nights of Ramadan is a story out of the Arabian Gulf. In this region, during Ramadan, there is a three night period where children wear traditional clothing, and walk around to their neighbors and friends collecting treats (just like trick or treating). This is a story about a little girl named Noor and her brothers preparing for this exciting time. This is a beautiful picture book that I like recommending to students for their independent reading time.

Applegate, K. (2009). Home of the brave. New York: Square Fish.

Katherine Applegate tells the story of a Sudanese refugee who is resettling in Minnesota after losing his family in Sudan. His father and brother were killed, and his mother separated during an attack. He is sent to Minnesota to live with his aunt and cousin. Through narrative, free verse poetry, Applegate tells of Kek’s transition to life in Minnesota and adjusting to his new life. At the end of the story, even through highs and lows, Kek is able to find a balance between adjusting to American life and staying true to his Sudanese heritage. Even though the book is written by a white woman, she acknowledges this disconnect, and it could be used to spark this important conversation with our students. This book would be appropriate for Intermediate ELLs. One idea for classroom application of this book would be to introduce figurative language and poetry to students.

An, N. (2001). A step from heaven. Asheville, NC: Front Street.

An tells the story of a young, Korean girl who moves to America. Through short snapshots of her growing up and adjusting to the new life in America, we see the main character, Young Ju, grow up and learn to balance her Korean values with life in America. She uses Korean words throughout the book and descriptive language to describe the things she does not know in English. She struggles with family dynamics in the new country and overcomes an abusive, alcoholic father while maintaining good grades to improve her future. This book is better suited for more advanced ELLs and could be used in the classroom as a literature circle option.

Bernardo, A. (1996). Fitting in. Houston, TX: Piñata Books.

The book is a collection of short stories about young, Cuban immigrants adjusting to life in the United States. Each story follows a different young girl that struggles to find balance between her native language, Spanish, and English. The author includes Spanish words and many examples of how the desire to be like everyone around you can influence a young person’s decisions and self-identity. This book would be appropriate for high novice to low intermediate English learners, especially for students with L1 in Spanish. This story would be a great way to introduce students to plot structure in narrative stories.

Brezenoff, S. (2015). The case of the missing museum archives. North Mankato, MN: Stone Arch Books, a Capstone Imprint.

This is an average teenage mystery solving book reminiscent of classics like Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown. In this series, Amal and her friends band together to solve mysteries that arise at her father’s Air and Space Museum. This book is about some important documents going missing that need to be found to save Amal’s father’s job. This text could be used in small group guided reading, or even as a read aloud for the entire class.  

Dupre, K., & Amir, A. (2008). The travels of Igal Shidad (S. S. Ahmed, Trans.). St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Humanities Commission.

The Travels of Igal Shidad is a Somali folktale that follows a man through his journey across the desert in search of a better home for his family. He asks Allah for help along the way, and realizes in the end that every one of his prayers were answered. This story would be useful to teach theme and would be very approachable for newcomers.

Hassan, M. A. (2007). Dhegdheer: A scary Somali folktale. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Humanities Commission.

This is a scary Somali folktale that starts out with lots of blood and gore – sure to hook any classroom of readers. Dhegdheer is a monster that roams free in the Hargega Valley of Somalia, eating up little children that cross her path. The story is about a mother and her son, and eventually their good nature overcoming the evil Dhegdheer. This story has both the Somali and English translation, and would be an excellent tool to get everyone reading – no matter their “level.” It may work to pair a stronger English speaker with a newcomer, and ask the newcomer to read/tell about the Somali text.


Kantor, S. (1998). One-hundred-and-one African-American read-aloud stories. New York, NY: Black Dog & Leventhal.

This book is a collection of short stories, fables, songs, poetry and biographies. The connection between all these pieces is that they are made to be read aloud in 10 minutes or less. The fables and stories are from many African countries such as Nigeria and Angola. The biographies are on famous African Americans. The book ends with background information on slavery and African-American history. The content in this book would be appropriate for many levels with the correct scaffolding. Read aloud to a novice class with a graphic organizers and sufficient background knowledge could be quite beneficial or independent bell ringer activities would be sufficient for more advanced readers.

Khan, H. (2015). Golden domes and silver lanterns: A Muslim book of colors. San Francisco, CA. Chronicle Books.

This is a beautiful little rhyming book written from the perspective of a little girl telling the reader all about the different customs of Islam through colors! “Orange is the color of my henna designs. They cover my hands in leafy vines.” This text could be used in art,  a simple phonics lesson, or to support the 5th Grade Standard CC.RL 5.7: how visual elements contribute to the tone, meaning, and beauty of a text.

Lai, T. (2011). Inside out & back again. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Lai uses narrative, free verse poetry to tell the story of a Vietnamese refugee’s transition to life in the United States. The short poems start with discussing life in Saigon and continues on to detail the voyage and life in Alabama through the voice of a young, 10-year-old girl named Ha. She laments the struggles of learning English as well as the cultural assimilation to life in rural Alabama. Ha talks about being the only Vietnamese child in her school and how she is bullied for being different. Eventually her family finds balance in the community and learns to live in Alabama while still holding on to their own culture. This work would be appropriate for readers from intermediate to adult. This book could be used as a language arts supplement to a social studies unit on The Vietnam War. It would also be a good text to use for poetry standards.

Mohamed, M. (2017). Ayeeyo’s golden rule. Minneapolis, MN. Wise Ink.

This book was just published in October, by local Minneapolis teacher, Mariam Mohamed. The story is about a little girl who moves to Texas from Somalia, and begins 4th grade. She is the only muslim student in the class. She is teased terribly at her new school but despite it all, she follows Ayeeyo’s (grandmother) golden rule and is always helpful and kind. Eventually things get better, and her classmates learn a valuable lesson.This is the kind of book to use in the first few weeks of school. It would be a great tool to support character education, classroom expectations, and the importance of being kind or welcoming new students.

Moriarty, K. (2008). Wiil Waal. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Humanities Commission.

This is a wonderful Somali folktale in which a Sultan invites the men of a village to bring him an offering of the piece of a sheep that has the power to unite and divide. A poor man puts his trust in his daughter’s clever idea (the gullet of the sheep) and the daughter eventually wins the Sultan’s blessing to one day rule the land. This would be a great text to use at the beginning of the school year to discuss the importance of generosity, trust and community. This text would also work well with guided reading groups, or newcomers due to the bilingual translations. http://humanitieslearning.org/resource/resourceDetails.cfm?id=4847

Wilson, T. (2016). Through my eyes. Edina, MN. Beaver’s Pond Press.

This 120 paged story is about a girl named Zamzam who flees Somalia during the civil war and moves to the US with her family. Zamzam faces many challenges when she first arrives in the US. Over the course of the story, she learns how to deal with the prejudice she faces and finds a balance between her Somali identity and growing up as an American kid. This would be a great text to read aloud or as guided reading practice.

Other Works Cited

Keene, E. & Zimmerman, S. (1997). Mosaic of thought. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.



Harold B. Allen Award Recipient: This article generated from a study on teacher perceptions of their preparations to meet the needs of secondary SLIFE, which has implications for anyone who is interested in improving education for this population of students.

Three years ago, I wrote my Master’s capstone on English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers’ perceptions of their preparation to meet the needs of secondary SLIFE (Students with Interrupted Formal Education). This topic was drawn from my own experiences as a secondary teacher working with a high population of refugee SLIFE in several different schools. In my research, I found that in many cases, secondary teachers felt that their schools were not adequately meeting the needs of these students and that they often felt underprepared when it came to understanding SLIFE and meeting their needs. To help mitigate this gap in teacher preparation and knowledge, in this article, I will describe many specific challenges and resulting needs that can differentiate SLIFE from other students, and will suggest a few ways to improve educational outcomes for SLIFE.

An Instructive SLIFE Example

In the introduction to my capstone (Herman Hill, 2015), I told the story of one of my typical 11th grade students—I called her Paw Eh. She arrived in the U.S. at age 15 from a refugee camp in Thailand, and not only knew no English, but was semi-literate in her own language. Her family had to flee her home country of Burma due to war, and she attended school on an intermittent basis in the refugee camp. Her first and second years in the U.S. were spent entirely in sheltered English Language (EL) courses, where most of her instruction was provided by EL teachers who modified language and content to make it comprehensible for her. Her EL teachers considered her a bright and motivated student who had wonderful potential. In her third year, she was placed in mainstream classes where she was expected to do grade-level work and prepare to graduate. Some of her classes had EL support, but most of them did not. Paw Eh was overwhelmed by her schedule and had trouble following along and understanding her teachers in her classes. She read at a third grade reading level, so she was not able to comprehend the reading on her 11th-grade standardized tests. She had never taken science classes in the refugee camp, and struggled to grasp the abstract content in her biology and chemistry classes. Her family was starting to pressure her to find a job so she could help support the family. She was starting to believe that her dream of going to college and becoming a teacher was an impossible one. She felt like she was not smart enough for high school, and was considering dropping out.

Sadly, I still see cases like Paw Eh’s each year in my work as a high school EL teacher. While there have been improvements with school districts’ awareness of SLIFE, movement has been slow in adapting classes and curricula to better meet their needs. Each year I see heartbreaking attrition in my classes and I worry over what opportunities these students will have without a high school diploma. SLIFE meet many difficult challenges in secondary schools today, and by many accounts these students are the “highest of high-risk” for dropping out (DeCapua, Smathers, & Tang 2009). In addition to social, emotional, and family factors, SLIFE are dropping out for academic reasons. According to Rong and Preissle (1998), refugee and immigrant students often drop out because of a lack of psychological and academic preparation before entering U.S schools, and House (2001) found that another factor contributing to the decision to drop out is students’ negative self-perceptions about their academic ability. DeCapua and Marshall (2011) assert that many students with limited formal education drop out because of cultural dissonance, and that an insistence on providing a one-size-fits-all curriculum that does not attend to the needs of SLIFE means that those students will at best get a superficial understanding of the material. By not attending to the specific needs of these students, many secondary schools are denying them access to a comprehensible, accessible education, and thus are not putting them on a viable path to graduating with English and academic proficiency, nor on a path to college and career readiness.

Specific Needs of SLIFE

SLIFE like Paw Eh face many challenges at the secondary level because of their unique set of needs. DeCapua, Smathers, and Tang (2009) describe the importance of “educating the whole child” (p. 32) when educating SLIFE and the need to focus on affective issues, such as emotional needs, as well addressing language and academic needs. They also outline key elements of successful SLIFE programs and list “devoted and well-trained teachers” (p. 84) as one of these elements. They state that teachers need to nurture students and be responsive to their academic, literacy, emotional, physical, and cultural needs.

Most SLIFE enter high school with academic background knowledge and literacy abilities that are below those of their native English-speaking peers (DeCapua & Marshall, 2011). Many of my students have told me that their schools in the refugee camps were overcrowded, and resources such as books and writing materials were scarce. Students have also shared that they were frequently pulled out of school to work and help their families. These interruptions to their education and lack of quality education result in many educational disadvantages for SLIFE.

Many SLIFE enter secondary schools without basic literacy skills, so instruction needs to begin with the alphabet and basic phonemic awareness. Another important consideration is that many SLIFE come from oral cultures that have different ways of perceiving and organizing knowledge (Watson, 2010). A further example of academic differences that DeCapua and Marshall (2011) describe is the difference between formal and informal education. They describe formal education as highly structured within a regulated and predetermined system. Informal education, on the other hand, is incidental learning that that takes place in response to needs as they come up. SLIFE often arrive in U.S. schools with many rich experiences in informal learning, but with a lack of formal learning. As a result, SLIFE are accustomed to learning about topics that are immediately relevant to them, rather than learning about abstract topics that are common in Western education.

In many cases, SLIFE are expected to complete high school within four years, the same as their U.S. born peers. With increased pressure from school and district administrators to improve school graduation rates, many SLIFE are graduating high school with limited language and literacy skills and only preliminary knowledge of the academic skills mentioned above, and thus are not adequately prepared for college and career.

Another common trait of SLIFE, especially those who are refugees, is that they and their families have experienced emotional trauma. Karen refugees from Burma, who in recent years comprised Minnesota’s fastest-growing refugee group, have very high rates of war trauma and exposure to torture (Koumpilova, 2015). Along with the interruption in schooling that war causes, emotional trauma has a significant impact on language learning (Bigelow & Watson 2012). Neuner, Catani, Ruf, Schauer, Schauer and Ebert (2008) conducted a study of war-torn countries in which they demonstrated that trauma has a negative impact on an individual’s ability to hold new information, particularly symbolic information, in memory.

A few signs of trauma outlined in a report by the Center for Victims of Torture (Johnson, 2005) are symptoms such as short-term memory problems, irritability, feeling watchful or on guard, exaggerated startle response, and even suicidal thoughts. For refugees, the stress of starting a new life in the United States can often worsen these symptoms. According to Montero, Newmaster and Ledger, (2014), intensive supports are necessary to not only minimize the huge gaps in formal learning that SLIFE present, but also to address the psychosocial needs associated with flight and trauma common to refugees. If students’ mental health needs are not being met, they will have little chance of achieving success in school, so it is imperative that teachers and schools that serve SLIFE have the proper support networks in place for students and families who are grappling with the aftermath of trauma.

There are also challenges as refugee students adjust to a new school culture. In addition to culture shock, DeCapua, Smathers, and Tang (2009) describe some SLIFE experiencing “school shock,” especially those students who have never been to school before (p. 36). These students need to learn typical classroom behaviors such as sitting in a desk, holding a pencil, and asking for a hall pass. School shock can result in behavior problems for some students. McBrien (2005) states that many refugee students view schools in their home countries as places of authoritarian rules and harsh physical punishments when they break the rules. American schools, on the other hand, are sometimes viewed by refugee students as places with no behavioral rules. As a result, some refugee students can develop discipline problems, and many refugee teens are vulnerable to gangs, drugs, sexual exploitation, and dropout (McBrien, 2005).

Another challenge confronting SLIFE is that many of their physical and health needs were not met when they were children and displaced or living in refugee camps, which affects overall development. Barton and Coley (2009) point to factors such as low birth weight, hunger and malnutrition, as factors that negatively affect cognitive and academic achievement. Since they often lacked access to adequate health services and nutrition as young children, these are all factors that can heavily impact SLIFE. In my own experience, I have seen many SLIFE who suffered health problems such as hearing loss from untreated ear infections and developmental delays as a result of malnutrition or injuries as a child. This can result in some SLIFE requiring special education services.

Teachers of SLIFE need to be aware of all of the above factors in order to help students get the academic, literacy, cultural, emotional, and physical supports that they may need in order to be successful in school.

Ways to Improve Education for SLIFE

Clearly, there are myriad challenges surrounding educating newcomer SLIFE at the secondary level. However, this is not a reason for teachers and administrators to throw up their hands in frustration. SLIFE have many strengths such as resilience, creativity, persistence, and motivation (just to name a few) that make them a joy to teach. They should not be seen as a problem to solve, but as an asset to our schools. However, there are a number of ways that teacher education programs, and secondary schools by extension, can improve how they prepare teachers to work with SLIFE.

Improvements in Instructional Settings

  • Schools should provide SLIFE who are non-literate or semi-literate in their first language with specialized literacy programs, such as guided reading (Montero, Newmaster, & Ledger, 2014) to develop literacy at their level. Guided reading, for example, is effective because it focuses on early literacy skills such as phonological awareness and decoding, and incorporates students’ rich oral language and life experiences as a background on which to build print literacy instruction.
  • Students’ psychosocial needs should be a priority, and schools should value electives such as music, art, and physical education as possible places of emotional healing for victims of trauma (Johnson, 2005).
  • Teachers need to confront their own attitudes toward immigrant and refugee children and create classrooms in which there is multicultural education and respect for children of all backgrounds and cultures.

Improvements in Teacher Education Programs

  • ESL teacher education programs should provide teacher candidates with curriculum and resources for teaching SLIFE. Whenever possible, teacher candidates should have a practicum experience working with SLIFE.
  • Attention to SLIFE needs should be included in every aspect of ESL teacher education programs. This should be done in courses on literacy, grammar, cultural diversity, second language acquisition, advocacy, and ESL methods, among others.
  • SLIFE issues should be addressed not just in ESL teacher education programs, but in all teacher education programs. ESL teachers need to understand SLIFE needs, and others do as well, including mainstream teachers, school administrators, school social workers, guidance counselors, school nurses, and educational policy makers.
  • ESL teacher education programs need to educate future teachers on the cultures of immigrant and refugee students, and prepare them to help their students successfully acculturate in the United States.

Improvement in Policy

  • Secondary schools must allow SLIFE more time to graduate from high school and provide them with alternative academic programming that is tailored to their needs. Many school districts are starting to add six-year graduation plans for SLIFE, which offer an articulated pathway that allows students to build literacy skills as well as the academic content and language that they need in order to succeed in college.  

SLIFE have a wide variety of needs, and they need strong advocates in their school to help meet those needs. These students are fighting for a better life in a new country, and they often need to teachers to fight alongside them to make sure they get the opportunities and education that they deserve.


Barton, P. & Coley, R. (2009). Parsing the achievement gap II. (Educational Testing Service). Princeton, NJ. Retrieved from http://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/PICPARSINGII.pdf

Bigelow, M. & Watson, J. (2012). The role of educational level, literacy, and orality in L2 learning. In S.M. Gass & A. Mackey (Eds.) The Routledge handbook of second language acquisition. (pp.461-475). Oxon, England: Routledge Press.

DeCapua, A., Smathers, W. & Tang, L.F. (2009). Meeting the needs of students with limited or interrupted schooling: A guide for educators. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

DeCapua, A. & Marshall, H.W. (2011). Breaking new ground: Teaching students with limited or interrupted formal education in U.S. secondary schools. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Herman Hill, K. (2015). Teacher Perceptions of Their Preparation to Meet the Needs of Secondary English Learners with Limited Formal Education. (Masters Capstone, Hamline University, Saint Paul, USA). Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.hamline.edu/hse_all/136/

House, J .D. (2001). The relationship between academic self-concept and school withdrawal. Journal of Social Psychology, 133, 125-127.

Johnson, D. (2005). Helping refugee trauma survivors in the primary care setting. Minneapolis, MN: Center for Victims of Torture.

Koumpilova, M. (2015, January 13). U study finds high rates of trauma among Karen refugees. The Star Tribune. Retrieved March 14, 2015 from http://www.startribune.com/local/minneapolis/288478131.html

McBrien, J. L. (2005). Educational needs and barriers for refugee students in the United States: A review of the literature. Review of Educational Research, 75(3), 329-364. doi:10.3102/00346543075003329

Montero, M. K., Newmaster, S., & Ledger, S. (2014). Exploring early reading instructional strategies to advance the print literacy development of adolescent SLIFE. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 58(1), 59-69.

Neuner, F. , Catani, C., Ruf, M., Schauer, E., Schauer, M., & Elbert, T., (2008). Narrative exposure therapy for the treatment of child and adolescent war victims: From neurobiology to field intervention. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Clinics of North America, 17, 641-664.

Rong, X. L ., & Preissle, J. (1998). Educating immigrant students: What we need to know to meet the challenges. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Trueba, H.T., Jacobs, L., & Kirton, E. (1990). Cultural conflict and adaptation: The case of Hmong children in American society. New York: Falmer Press.

Watson, J. (2010). Interpreting Across the Abyss: A hermeneutic exploration of initial literacy development by high school English Language Learners with limited formal schooling. (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Minnesota). Retrieved June 22, 2012 from http://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/95766/1/Watson_umn_0130E_11291.pdf

Woods, A. (2009). Learning to be literate: Issues of pedagogy for recently arrived refugee youth in Australia. Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, 6 (1/2 ), 81–101.



The text below reviews dynamic assessment as it is applied to discerning a language difference versus a language disorder, specifically in children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. The history of dynamic assessment, basic principles, benefits and tips for application will also be discussed.

A common question that arises when school professionals evaluate the language skills of a multilingual child who is falling behind their peers is, ‘does this child have a language difference or an actual language disorder’? A true language disorder is evident in every language the child speaks and is defined as deficits in understanding others or sharing thoughts, ideas, and feelings completely (ASHA, 2017). As the professional responsible for assessing children for language disorders, speech-language pathologists (SLPs) must work alongside classroom teachers to determine if a multilingual child has an actual language disorder and truly needs special education services. Unfortunately, it is relatively common for multilingual children to be misdiagnosed with a language disorder when they are only demonstrating a language difference. According to Pieretti & Roseberry-McKibbin (2016), a language difference is illustrated by, “Differences in sentence structure, speech sound production, vocabulary, and the pragmatic uses of language that are to be expected when a child learns a new language” (p. 118). All school professionals who support multilingual children, especially English as a second language (ESL) teachers, SLPs and other members of the special education team must understand the differences between these two concepts when completing language assessments.

Identifying Language Disorders

One of the ways SLPs identify language disorders is by using language assessments to rate an individual’s performance and compare that performance to peers. If the student’s score falls a certain amount below average, they are diagnosed with a language disorder and begin receiving services from a licensed SLP. The majority of standardized language tests used for this purpose are normed using monolingual native English speakers (Paradis, Schneider, & Sorenson, 2013). Using these tests to determine the presence of speech and language disorders in children who are not native English speakers, and therefore not like the children represented in the normed sample, is difficult. Assessing the need for service is further complicated by the fact that only seven percent of certified SLPs and audiologists who are members of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) are considered bilingual (ASHA, 2017).

When asked to assess a multilingual child’s language skills, SLPs must examine the process of language development, patterns of language loss, and the influence of dual language acquisition in order to identify the presence of a language difference or a disorder (ASHA, 2017). When an individual has a language impairment with no other conditions that qualify them for special education services, they are diagnosed with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) (ASHA, 2017). This diagnosis is most often given to school-aged children who struggle with receptive and/or expressive language but do not have a developmental disability like Down Syndrome or Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Processes for properly assessing English language learners (ELLs) must be developed and refined in order to prevent the under-identification or over-identification of this population, especially since the distinction between a language difference and language disorder can be a thin line. A dynamic assessment (DA) approach is one possibility for determining the presence of a true language disorder in ELLs. DA assesses the student’s ability to learn rather than measuring performance ability on a single test. In the text below, we have compiled an overview of DA, listed its benefits, and described its application in determining if an ELL would benefit from additional services.  

Federal Laws and ELL assessment

Prior to diving deeper into the intricacies of DA, it is important to have an understanding of the federal laws related to ELL assessment. Both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Individuals with Disabilities Act of 2004 (IDEA) require appropriate services be delivered to all students with disabilities (Liu, Watkins, Pompa, McLeod, & Elliot, 2013). Unfortunately, norm-referenced tests are still used to diagnose disorders (Petersen, Chanthongthip, Ukrainetz, Spencer & Steeve, 2017). Prezas & Jo (2017) found that many monolingual SLPs primarily rely on English assessments, which contributes to the under or over-identification of ELLs. IDEA specifically states that assessment instruments and methods used with ELLs must be unbiased and nondiscriminatory (IDEA, 2004). Hence, federal law supports the use of DA as an appropriate, non-standardized, informal assessment to evaluate ELL students (Roseberry-McKibbin, & O’Hanlon, 2005). SLPs should already be using DA methods rather than standardized tests, assessing both the learner’s native language and L2 and be working with interpreters – when needed – in determining ELLs qualification for special education services.

Dynamic Assessment: History and Basic Principals

Dynamic Assessment is based on Vygotsky’s model of cognitive development (Vygotsky, 1978), in which he claims that learning takes place in the child’s zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978; Gutiérrez-Clellen & Peña, 2001). Feuerstein’s Theory of Structural Cognitive Modifiability extended Vygotsky’s theory and applied it to the formal education process (Feuerstein, 1979; Feuerstein, 1980). Feuerstein’s approach evaluated the individual’s response to a specific intervention – the ‘teach’ phase of a test-teach-retest model (Hasson, Camilleri, Jones, Smith, & Dodd, 2012) – and specifically assessed the child’s behavior during intervention. This was in contrast to the standard comparison between pretest and posttest scores (Vygotsky, 1986; Peña et al., 2006). Informed by these theoretical approaches, SLPs can determine how much instruction and support a learner needs in order to complete a task. If the child improves their performance after receiving support, and can apply what they have learned to a related task, their struggle is more likely due to a language difference. On the other hand, if the child needs consistent support and is unable to generalize, they are more likely to have a true language disorder and would benefit from special education services.

SLPs primarily use the test-teach-retest approach of DA to assess CLD students as it is better suited than standardized assessments to differentiate language differences from disorders. In this model, the child is tested to obtain baseline proficiency data of their knowledge of the material. The child then takes part in an intervention (the teaching phase of DA) and finally, completes the posttest portion. Results indicate how their knowledge and skills changed after completing the teaching phase. This method differs from a ‘teach to the test’ approach because it does not use the actual test items during the intervention phase (Gutiérrez-Clellen & Peña, 2001). Specifically, the test-teach-retest dynamic assessment (TtR-DA) approach and its application to assessing language skills in children during narrative retell tasks currently has the most support in the research. This approach will be discussed extensively in the following paragraphs.

TtR-DA utilizes mediated learning experiences (MLEs) to modify the student’s level of functioning in target areas by teaching the principles that underlie the task. Specifically, MLEs address both task-specific language skills and learning behaviors (Gutiérrez-Clellen & Peña, 2001; Lidz, 1991; Lidz & Peña, 1996). MLEs work as an accurate assessment because cognitive-linguistic interface skills (i.e. attention, memory, problem solving, fast mapping, etc.) can be shared between a person’s two languages (Cummins, 2000). For example, in a narrative task – completed in the child’s L1 with an interpreter present – where the student responds to every question with one word answers, the MLE would focus explicitly teaching them ways to expand utterances. This skill then would be reassessed in the retest section. Typically developing (TD) ELLs have the underlying cognitive skills to improve their performance after an MLE, but those with a language impairment do not. TtR-DA not only reveals the gains the child made from pretest to posttest, it also allows the SLP to formally assess the ‘modifiability’ of the child.

Modifiability is the amount of support needed for learning as well as the skills and strategies used by the child to learn new information (Peña, Reséndiz & Gillam, 2007). Through TtR-DA, clinicians are able to “measure children’s latent capacities for change instead of their ability to perform a skill at a given point in time” (Peña et al., 2007, p. 332). A child with a high modifiability score (i.e. need less support and are more responsive to intervention) who makes gains from pretest to posttest, is less likely to have a language impairment. By gathering information about the student’s ability to learn and perform, the SLP is more likely to provide an accurate diagnosis.

Test-Teach-Retest Dynamic Assessment: Benefits

TtR-DA has multiple benefits and should be a primary procedure used to assess ELLs for special education services in the K-12 setting. One benefit is the high accuracy TtR-DA has for identifying learners with and without language disorder. TtR-DA can test any student’s use of learning skills and strategies, regardless of their knowledge of the English language (Roseberry-McKibbin & O’Hanlon, 2005). This contributes to the validity and reliability of DA, as it decreases the bias of traditional testing methods that exist due to lack of student knowledge of the English language or formal test procedures.

Petersen et al. (2017), worked to determine the validity of TtR-DA as a prominent assessment measure for culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) children. Researchers used the test-teach-retest approach and two MLEs to assess for SLI in school-aged, Spanish-speaking children. Because SLPs often credit a lack of time as a primary reason for using norm-referenced tests (Caesar & Kohler, 2007), researchers conducted assessments in English and completed real-time scoring to examine TtR-DA’s practicality (Petersen et al., 2017). After testing was completed, different researchers listened to audio recordings of the children and scored each child’s performance. There was found to be a 90-95 percent agreement between the real-time and after the fact scores (Petersen et al., 2017). The high inter-scorer reliability shows that real time scoring is effective, meaning the use of TtR-DA can also benefit the SLP or ESL teacher by saving time.

The best predictor of the presence of SLI appears to be a qualitative modifiability rating (Peña et al., 2006; Petersen et al., 2017) like a numeric rating scale for examiner effort, child responsivity and the amount of knowledge transfer demonstrated. This finding has important implications, as it may mean that underlying cognitive skills such as attention and memory have a significant impact on student performance during TtR-DA tasks. If consistently accurate results are documented using modifiability ratings to supplement other methods of diagnosing language disorders, SLPs can use modifiability scores to determine the need for service and therefore limit the number of TD ELLs receiving special education services. Other benefits of TtR-DA are that it is easily repeated and can be used to inform therapy goals (Poehner, 2008). Using an ongoing assessment approach provides clear insight into learner needs and how student learning changes over time.

The Application of Dynamic Assessment: Narrative Language Samples

Multiple research studies have examined the overall effectiveness and efficiency of using TtR-DA methods to assess CLD children’s language skills using narrative language samples.

Language Sample Basics

When a SLP completes a comprehensive language assessment, it is considered best practice to collect a language sample in the student’s native language (L1) and English (L2). The language sample is often a short, recorded session in which the child retells a story from a wordless picture book (i.e. Mayer, 1979a). This task has the potential to provide many opportunities for spontaneous language production and, therefore, is a good measure of a child’s language strengths and weaknesses. Using language samples and narrative retells to assess a multilingual child’s learning ability can be completed by classroom teachers as well as school specialists. Additionally, the format of language sampling used by SLPs is easily paired with the TtR-DA making this assessment tool extremely valuable.

When an SLP uses a language sample as a dynamic assessment measure they are able to obtain the sample in either language and ensure lack of familiarity with testing is not impacting child performance. Narratives provide additional insight into each child’s language skills and are recommended as a less biased assessment tool for ELLs as they are more realistic for collecting linguistic information (Cleave, Girolametto, Chen & Johnson, 2010). Boudreau (2007), explained that narrative development is a domain of language that children with SLI struggle with, implying that it may be a useful assessment tool to differentiate this population from TD peers. Children with SLI struggle to incorporate both the micro and macro elements of narrative retells as well as synthesize the overall production and comprehension of the story (Boudreau, 2007). Narrative assessments have high content validity because they are often a part of the school and home discourse (Peña et al., 2006). Narratives also give more insight into the child’s thought process, emerging skills, and learning potential compared to static measures. Because of these benefits, language samples and DA approaches should be combined to assess bilingual students’ language development.

Studies on Narrative Assessment

Peña, Gillam, & Bedore (2014) conducted TtR-DA of narrative ability with Spanish-speaking ELL preschool children diagnosed with SLI. Researchers used a test-teach-retest approach, short MLEs and wordless picture books (Mayer, 1979a; Mayer, 1979b). The scripted interventions focused on increasing the length and complexity of the students’ narrative retells (Peña et al., 2014). Results from this investigation indicated that two short MLEs were enough to demonstrate change in discourse ability and that children with SLI had significantly lower modifiability than the TD children (Peña et al., 2014). Overall, this dynamic approach yielded high reliability, validity and practicality when using narrative skills and modifiability scores to indicate language ability. Peña et al. (2006) also used a test-teach-retest approach with 71 CLD school-aged children, 14 of whom had SLI. Results indicated that the TD children demonstrated a larger amount of pretest to posttest change than those students with SLI (Peña et al., 2006). In addition, measures of posttest score and modifiability were found to be valid and reliable measures in determining a language disorder. The static pretest scores in this study did not produce reliable results when determining SLI (Peña et al., 2006).

Kramer, Mallett, Scheider, and Hayward (2009) implemented TtR-DA with 17 First Nations students, five of whom were labeled as ‘at-risk’ for language impairment, to discover if TtR-DA reduced unnecessary referrals for services (Kramer et al., 2009). Given this population’s long-standing cultural tradition of oral storytelling, researchers found that TtR-DA with narrative retell was deemed an appropriate assessment measure for these children. Results showed that the students with typical language learning received higher posttest scores compared to students who had possible language impairments (Kramer et al., 2009). Similar to previously discussed results, this suggests that students with language impairments have more difficulty learning and integrating new information into their narratives compared to TD peers.

There are many more studies that describe the implementation of TtR-DA principles and its effectiveness in determining language disorders in ELL students. Overall, results imply that decontextualized standardized tests are not appropriate assessments to use with ELLs as they may contain culturally-biased content and be highly impacted by a student’s lack of exposure to formal tests. Telling stories, however, is a more familiar script for most children. Therefore, a narrative assessment is a more appropriate means for ELLs to demonstrate their language skills (Cleave et al., 2010).

In the K-12 setting, educators are constantly presented with CLD learners who struggle academically and socially. When these students begin to fall behind their peers, response to intervention (RtI) programs are often implemented and the child may complete a comprehensive evaluation for special education services. In these situations, each member of the team (the general classroom teacher, the ESL teacher, the reading specialist, the SLP, and other special education staff) must work together and use ethical assessment procedures to ensure the need for services is valid. Understanding the principles of TtR-DA and how to apply them to your scope of practice is a crucial step in this team-based approach.     


As future SLPs, we plan to conduct TtR-DA when assessing ELL students for language disorders. Overall, DA is preferred to using static, formal measures as it helps SLPs accurately assess ELL students’ potential while ruling out bias due to differences in background experience (Roseberry-McKibbin, & O’Hanlon, 2005) and the influence of dual language learning. As mentioned, federal law supports the use of DA as an appropriate, informal assessment for ELL students (Roseberry-McKibbin, & O’Hanlon, 2005). These laws combined with the best current evidence support the implementation of DA practices when assessing ELLs.

Future Steps – Filling Gaps in Research and Changing Practitioner Education

When reviewing studies of TtR-DA, we discovered some gaps in the current body of research. A majority of the studies focused on bilinguals who spoke Spanish and English. While findings on Spanish-English bilingual ELLs were informative, it would be ideal if future studies examined TtR-DA application with children who spoke a variety of languages. This would ensure the effectiveness of TtR-DA regardless of L1/L2 combination. If these studies were completed, researchers and clinicians could work together to create norms for ELLs who speak different languages. This would provide SLPs with appropriate, normative cut-offs that could be used to qualify ELLs for services.

Another barrier is the lack of multilingual and culturally diverse SLPs and interpreter support in schools, causing lower quality education for many ELL children with speech and language disorders. Best practice demands dual language assessment of all bilingual children, regardless of their English proficiency (Caesar & Kohler, 2007) meaning that English speaking SLPs would benefit from trainings on how to complete appropriate assessment and intervention with interpreter support.

Unfortunately, there are still barriers that prevent the widespread implementation of DA in schools across the United States. The primary issue regrettably exists in university classrooms. According to Caesar & Kohler (2007), a majority of the SLPs surveyed did not feel that their graduate education adequately prepared them to assess and provide intervention to multilingual students. Graduate students need academic instruction and clinical training on working with ELL students to be prepared to work in a country as diverse as the United States. This finding aligns with a survey conducted by Roseberry-McKibbin & O’Hanlon (2005). In 1990 and 2001, SLPs were surveyed and asked questions about problems they encounter most frequently in the workplace and what type of continuing education classes would be of interest to them. Even though the surveys were given out 11 years apart, the top answers were similar. Both groups reported a “lack of unbiased appropriate assessment instruments” and that they would take classes focused on “assessment procedures and materials for conducting unbiased assessments of ELL students” (Roseberry-McKibbin & O’Hanlon, 2005, p. 179). SLPs need more training in their graduate careers and more opportunities for continuing education focused on working with ELL students.


Combining assessment and intervention processes in a single assessment method like TtR-DA has the potential to reveal differences between children with and without language impairments, regardless of their cultural and linguistic diversity. Ideally, more and more SLPs entering the workforce will understand the importance of using DA methods in their practice. The information synthesized above clearly demonstrates that TtR-DA can limit cultural biases in diagnostic procedures and improve the accuracy of classifying multilinguals with language impairments.

What does this mean for students, teachers, and SLPs? For students, the use of more valid and reliable assessment measures will limit the over and under-identification of language disorders. For SLPs, this means using an assessment procedure supported by IDEA and supporting students who truly benefit from their skilled service. For teachers, it means having reassurance that students who struggle academically truly need additional support and that it is not their responsibility to provide that support when a true disorder is evident. Additionally, all team members will learn to watch for red flags for language impairment, know when to refer for RtI or additional evaluations, and understand the TtR-DA approach and its benefits.

If you have more questions about DA, we highly advise finding your school or district SLP and engaging in a dialogue about assessing ELLs for special education services – this collaboration can only serve to support the ELL students in our K-12 classrooms.


American Speech-Language-Hearing Association | ASHA. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2017, from https://www.asha.org/

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Caesar, L. G., & Kohler, P. D. (2007). The state of school-based bilingual assessment: Actual practice versus recommended guidelines. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 38, 190-200.

Cleave, P. L., Girolametto, L. E., Chen, X., & Johnson, C. J. (2010). Narrative abilities in monolingual and dual language learning children with specific language impairment. Journal of Communication Disorders, 43, 511-522. doi: 10.1016/j.jcomdis.2010.05.005

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Gutiérrez-Clellen, V. F., & Peña, E. (2001). Dynamic assessment of diverse children: A tutorial. Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, 32, 212-224.

Hasson, N., Camilleri, B., Jones, C., Smith, J., & Dodd, B. (2012). Discriminating disorder from difference using dynamic assessment with bilingual children. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 29(1), 57-75.

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Recommended Additional Reading

  • Dynamic Assessment Framework
  • Caesar, L. G., & Kohler, P. D. (2007). The state of school-based bilingual assessment: Actual practice versus recommended guidelines. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 38(3), 190-200. 
  • Gutiérrez-Clellen, V. F., & Peña, E. (2001). Dynamic assessment of diverse children: A tutorial. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. (32), 212–224.



The authors review the educational and political rationales for school-based labels for students, teachers and programs, particularly with respect to learners identified as needing English language and literacy support.  They examine the ways in which labels can communicate unintended messages that can get in the way of providing students an effective education. The article encourages educators to push back against labels that should be challenged or changed, and to transcend the categories they create.

As a society, we are fixated on labeling and categorizing people. Before a baby is even born, people want to know whether it is a girl or a boy. Racial group designations also lead to external perceptions and, in many ways, to differential treatment in our society. These gender and racial categories are social constructions that have significant meaning, and they come to school along with the students we teach. On top of these social labels, schools add their own designations. Although such labels can be purposeful and helpful, they can also be limiting and damaging to the education of our students.

In this article we review the educational and political rationales for school-based labels, particularly for learners identified as needing English language and literacy support, and the often unintended consequences of such labels. We examine the ways in which these labels can be limiting, communicating messages that can be harmful and that can get in the way of providing students an effective education. We start with the role of student labels, and then move on to the categories we use for teachers and programs in educational settings.

Labeling Students

Following the monumental Lau v. Nichols court decision (1974), all students who speak a language other than English at home, and who are deemed to have a level of English that is insufficient for schooling, must receive services to support their English development. The law left the role of creating criteria and a system to determine which students require these developmental language classes/programs to the discretion of each state. In many states, families and guardians of new students complete a home language questionnaire (HLQ). If they indicate that a language other than English is spoken in the home, the child must then take an exam such as the WIDA screener (in Minnesota and other states) or the New York State Identification Test for English Language Learners (in New York). If a student scores below a certain level they are automatically labeled as an English Language Learner (ELL), requiring schools to provide them with focused English language instruction. To exit this designation, students pass an exam and/or achieve a minimum score on a standardized English language arts exam. This means that the first formal schooling experience for many students – usually within ten days of entering a school – essentially entails failing an exam.

Deficit Focused Labels

Until the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), students were designated as Limited English Proficient (LEP) instead of ELL. This terminology was a clear indication that the school system viewed them from a deficit perspective. Of course, the stated intent of the labels has been to ensure that students who require additional English supports receive mandated services and visibility. Nevertheless, the label LEP – like all labels – comes with a message about the people it describes. While the term LEP has been removed from federal legislation, it can still be heard as a descriptor for students in the hallways of schools. The LEP label implies that, regardless of how many languages a student may speak, or whatever other abilities and talents they may have, their “limited English proficiency” makes them inadequate, not only with language, but also academically. This must come as a shock to an immigrant student who was a successful student in their country of birth, but suddenly had been deemed “limited.”

Fortunately, federal law has caught up with the problems with the term LEP, and it has been replaced.  While the new term English Language Learner (like its cousin, English Learner or EL) removes the word “limited,” it still focuses on what students are lacking: English.  Students are positioned not as learners of math, science, or social studies, nor as artists, athletes, or poets. The label sets English proficiency as a panacea, yet any English monolingual will tell you that speaking English has yet to solve all their problems. For students who have been designated as ELLs for six or more years, we add to this label, calling them Long-Term ELLs (LTELLs). Some have observed that this term is akin to “lifers,” a word used in prison settings to describe people who have life sentences (Valdés, 2001). One high school student we know who was informed that the label Long-Term English Learner could be applied to him replied, “You just made me feel stupid” (Flores, Kleyn & Menken, p. 113, 2015). Furthermore, Brooks (2016) and Flores et al. (2015) note that many students who fall under this label are US-born and are resentful of a categorization that disregards their full linguistic repertoire as bilinguals whose language practices include features from English and their home language(s) for various purposes. These US-born students (rightly) do not understand why they are labeled in the same way as students who have arrived from other countries  (Fuligni, Witkow, & Garcia, 2005).

More Accurate Labels

To push past the negative connotations embedded within these labels, García and Kleifgen (2010) proposed the term Emergent Bilingual. This label focuses, first, on language learning as a dynamic process (emergent), and second, on the students’ bilingualism. It reminds us that language learning is an ongoing process in which students add to the linguistic resources they bring with them to become bilingual (or multilingual). Emergent Bilingual has become a widely-used term within the academic literature, but has yet to take hold in PreK-12 settings. One drawback of the term Emergent Bilingual is that it describes students as speakers of two languages, when in fact many students come from places and families where numerous languages are in use. Therefore, the terms Multilingual Learner (MLL) and Emergent Multilingual Learner (EMLL)  have begun to appear, to highlight the fact that students speak multiple languages and come with a range of linguistic resources that they can build upon.

Figure 1. Evolution of Terminology

While this evolution of labels (see Figure 1) has broadened the view of students and removed some of the explicit negative connotations of previous labels, students who are given these designations are still sometimes viewed as problematic. Schools may see them as bringing down test scores, and may even try to push them out to avoid this outcome (Lukes, 2015). Students who receive services intended to fix their perceived language problem may miss out on enrichment opportunities in the arts or advanced placement classes (Callahan & Shrifrer, 2016; Umansky, 2016).  And they are much more likely to be placed in classes for special education as opposed to gifted programs (Sullivan, 2011). This discrepancy of higher than average placement of multilingual students into special education settings and lower than average placement into gifted and enrichment programs is telling in terms of how students with these labels are perceived and educated.

We also know that students labeled as ELLs are not the only bilingual or multilingual speakers in our schools, as other students come with proficiency in multiple languages. However, when schools only focus on students’ English language proficiency, we make students’ home languages invisible. While some students may have the chance to share and even bring their home language into the school, others may feel a sense of shame in revealing their linguistic (and cultural) backgrounds. Children learn quickly that English is the language of power in this country and as a result, in schools too. This was the case for me (Tatyana), after I came to the US as a child from the Soviet Union and quickly picked up English. Most likely because I am white and did not have a Russian accent like my parents, teachers never even asked about my language practices and assumed I was an English monolingual. In New York City, 40% of students speak a language other than English at home (Koyama & Menken, 2013), but if they are proficient in English they usually find themselves identified as English monolinguals, erasing aspects not only of their full linguistic abilities, but also of their identities, and pushing them Ftoward English only. In fact, our students’ multilingualism should be celebrated as an asset not only to their learning, but also as an asset to our schools and communities.

When we think about students, labels matter and language matters. How we describe learners impacts their educational trajectory and outcomes, as well as their self-perceptions. Therefore, we are well served to continue to think and rethink about the labels we use, as well as the ways in which students within and outside of them are educated. And as with students, the labels we assign to teachers also come with both advantages and drawbacks.

Labeling Teachers

When someone decides to become a teacher, they often think of the content they feel most passionate about, or the age-group that they feel best suited to educate. Next, they choose a major such as elementary education, secondary science or, of course, Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). Before we look at teacher preparation, let’s think for a moment about the name of our field, TESOL, which centers squarely and exclusively on English. While teachers may hope that their students retain and continue to develop their home languages along with literacies and content competencies, the label itself gives no hint that there is anything to be addressed other than English. Fortunately, students, teachers and teacher education programs push beyond the limits of this and other labels.

Limitations of Disciplinary Labels

Generally, prospective teachers are prepared for their area of expertise in programs that are housed in highly compartmentalized Schools of Education. In some cases (i.e., special education, TESOL), teachers are prepared to work with a specific sub-group of students (García & Kleyn, 2013). On the other hand, most teachers are prepared with either one content area at the secondary level, or the core content areas at the elementary level. Some of these prospective teachers are required to take a course on teaching students with disabilities and/or on educating multilingual learners, but this is generally when state mandates are in place (de Jong, 2013).

This type of siloed preparation can lead to teachers who resist teaching literacy across the content areas, because they were only prepared to be a math or science teacher, for example. It can also result in content area teachers who may feel it is not their responsibility to teach students who are learning English – or to support them in their English development – as well as in  TESOL educators who may struggle to teach language through a content area they have not mastered. The disciplinary labels for teachers can limit not only their sense of responsibility, but also how much and what their students might learn.

A Holistic Alternative

To counter the narrow approach to preparing educators,  teachers should be educated in more holistic ways that go beyond a content area(s) and/or specific student populations (Kleyn & Valle, 2014). This is especially important for emergent multilingual learners, who spend the majority of their school day with educators who have not been taught how students learn languages, or about the role of home languages, or how to make content accessible to those who are still developing proficiency in English.

As we increasingly see the educational value of integrating language and content learning, it is also critical that we rethink the preparation of ESOL teachers, who are now becoming content teachers as well as language teachers. Instead of focusing only on multilingual learners, why not have TESOL majors select either a content area for secondary settings, or a focus on elementary education, to deepen their preparation to integrate language and content for their students?

We cannot avoid classifying teachers any more than we can avoid classifying students. But we should strive to find ways, within universities as well as in PreK-12 settings, to push against and beyond the labels we have assigned. It is vitally important that teachers be prepared for the interdisciplinary nature of content as well as for the diversity of their students. We should think too about the labels we apply to programs within our schools.   


When students are labeled as English Language Learners, it is usually their families who decide between two general types of programs:  ESL (English as a Second Language) or Bilingual Education, if an option for the latter exists. Most students are placed in the former type of program, which may also be called ESOL or ENL (English as a  New Language). The term ENL, which is now the official designation of these programs in New York, recognizes students’ multilingualism. Traditionally, these ESL/ENL spaces have been policed for English use, and students have been asked to leave their non-English linguistic resources at the door (Taylor & Snoddon, 2013). While this could be well-intentioned, that approach has robbed students of the opportunity to build on what they know and to be able to make explicit comparisons across the languages they practice. Fortunately, there has been a reframing of the TESOL field recently that has led to a shift beyond English only boundaries (García, 2014; Lin, 2013). For example, translanguaging pedagogy creates opportunities for students, even in ESL/ENL classes, to draw on their full linguistic knowledge and abilities to learn both content and language (for classroom examples see García and Kleyn, 2016; García, Johnson and Seltzer, 2017; for more on translanguaging see García 2009).  This promising recent development in the field has expanded TESOL beyond its label to include the multilingualism of its students.

Students who are placed in transitional or dual language bilingual programs are usually educated in a way incorporates their home language and English. In these programs, language use is generally dictated rigidly by teachers (in side-by-side models), by day/time, or by content areas, rather than by the needs of their students. These strict adherences to the norms of one or the other named language converts these bilingual programs into double monolingual programs. As in the immersion programs that bilingual education was meant to end, bilingual students are forced to suppress parts of their linguistic repertoire throughout the school day (Sánchez, García & Solorza, 2017). Furthermore, when students are in programs in which each teacher provides instruction in only one language, they may believe their teachers are monolingual. Positioning teachers as monolinguals contradicts the values we aim to instill in students regarding bilingualism and biliteracy. And finally, just as we have moved from labeling students from bilingual to multilingual, the dualistic aspect of bilingual programs hyper-focuses on English and the additional language, once again overlooking the multilingualism of students and their families (Martínez, 2017). Therefore, while bilingual programs certainly broaden opportunities for linguistic diversity, they may also restrict multilingualism to just two languages that exist in isolated spaces.


Our objective in writing this piece has been to show that while labels for students, teachers and programs are a necessity, they can also be limiting and even detrimental to the education of our multilingual students. Our hope is that educators will create norms in which we push back against the problematic terms we use, cross borders, and question when labels should be changed, and when they must be eliminated. To take our own advice and move beyond the mono-modality of traditional academic journal articles, we conclude with a visual representation of our text by Rachel Casey. We leave you with this image to inspire reflection on your use of labels and the ways we might transcend them.

Art by Rachel Casey, St. James Public Schools, Independent School District 840, Minnesota.


Brooks, M.D. (2016). “Tell me what you are thinking”: An investigation of five Latina LTELs constructing meaning with academic texts. Linguistics and Education, 35, 1-14.

Callahan, R. & Shrifrer, D. (2016). Equitable access for secondary English learner students: Course taking as evidence of EL program effectiveness. Educational Administration Quarterly, 52(3), 463–496. DOI:10.1177/0013161X16648190.

de Jong, E.J. (2013). Preparing mainstream teachers for multilingual classrooms, Association of Mexican American Educators Journal, 7(2), 40-49.

Fuligni, A. J., Witkow, M., & Garcia, C. (2005). Ethnic identity and the academic adjustment of adolescents from Mexican, Chinese, and European Backgrounds. Developmental Psychology, 41(5), 799-811.

García, O., & Kleifgen, J. (2010). Educating emergent bilinguals: Policies, programs and practices for English Language Learners. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

García, O., & Kleyn, T. (2013). Teacher education for multilingual education. In Carole A. Chapelle (Ed.). The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics (pp. 5543-5548). Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Flores, N., Kleyn, T., & Menken, K. (2015). Looking holistically in a climate of partiality: Identities of students labeled ‘Long-Term English Language Learners’. Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 14(2), 113-132, DOI:10.1080/15348458.2015.1019787.

García, O. (2014). TESOL translanguaged in NYS: Alternative perspectives. NYS TESOL  Journal, (1)1, 2-10.

Koyama, J., & Menken, K. (2013). Emergent bilinguals: Framing students as statistical data? Bilingual Research Journal, 36(1), 82-99.

Lin, A. M. Y. (2013). Towards paradigmatic change in TESOL methodologies: Building plurilingual pedagogies from the ground up. TESOL Quarterly, 47(3), 521-545.

Lukes, M. (2015). Latino immigrant youth and interrupted schooling dropouts, dreamers and alternative pathways to college. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Martínez, R. A. (2017). Dual language education and the erasure of Chicanx, Latinx, and indigenous Mexican children: A call to re-imagine (and imagine beyond) bilingualism. Texas Education Review, 5(1), 81-92.

Sánchez, M.T., García, O., & Solorza C. (2017). Reframing language allocation policy in dual language bilingual education, Bilingual Research Journal, 41(1), 37-51. DOI:10.1080/ 15235882.2017.1405098.

Sullivan, A. (2011). Disproportionality in special education identification and placement of English language learners. Exceptional Children, 77(3), 317-334.

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Umansky, I. (2016). “Leveled and Exclusionary Tracking: English Learners’ Access to Core Content in Middle School.” American Educational Research Journal, 53(6), 1792-1833.

Valdés, G. (2001). Learning and not learning English: Latino students in American schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.