DOES YOUR CHILD NEED ESL???
If you have a child adopted at 5, 6, or older, it is clear that they will need English as a Second Language classes at school, and most districts will help you. But what about the adopted toddler or preschooler? Most people -- and teachers -- assume that the child will adequately learn English by the time the child goes to school simply because they only hear English spoken in the home. Ah, but is that true?!?!
I became aware that my own son (now 4 1/2) may be having difficulty with English acquisition when I started teaching him to read. He was/is doing great sounding out words. We started with the words that end in AT -- CAT, RAT, BAT, etc. He would look at the picture of a RAT, sound out R-A-T and then say MOUSE. I would correct him and say RAT. Then, finally one day he said, "Mommy, what is a rat?" OOPS! In addition to simple vocabulary issues, there are other issues that he has with language, so I reached back to my Master's degree in TESOL and started researching about Language Acquisition in Internationally Adopted kids. Here's what I have discovered.
I came across an article by Diane Robinette, originally published in September 2007, in the TESOL Essential Teacher (unfortunately access to the article on-line is for TESOL members only). However, I would like to summarize it here as the information contained therein is ESSENTIAL for adoptive parents.
The article starts with a typical conversations had by an adoptive parent and a teacher. It goes like this: "Our daughter (adopted at 2) did well in Kindergarten, and she speaks English so well that most people think she is a native speaker. But she is struggling with reading" or "Our (adopted) son...loves science and seems to understand the concepts, but he has difficulty completing the written assignments."
Unfortunately, internationally adopted children "do not fit the model that is characteristic of most second language learners in U.S. schools." In fact, some schools will not offer ESL help because English is the primary language spoken in the home, while others will not test for special education services because the "test results would be invalid since English is not the child's first language."
Internationally adopted children cannot be considered BILINGUAL because in most cases the child will have little or not contact in their native language following the adoption -- thus halting first language acquisition. Then, they begin the process of acquiring a second language and "for a time their language skills are not age appropriate" in either language. Eventually, their new language completely overtakes any first language acquisition.
Research suggests that children adopted before 18 months "usually learn English as their first language." And these children typically achieve all of the important linguistic milestones on time.
However, parents of children arriving home after 18 months of age should be aware that just because your child seems to speak fluently, does not mean that your child is proficient.
So, what should you know and do as a parent?
1. Ensure that your school "provides proficiency testing even if your child appears to speak English like a native speaker." Ms. Robinette points out that while a child can speak at an age appropriate level, it may take "5 to 7 years to reach their academic potential in a second language. Often children...do well in kindergarten but experience difficulty with academic subjects during early elementary years." So remember, CONVERSATIONAL PROFICIENCY DOES NOT PREDICT ACADEMIC SUCCESS.
2. Remember that your child is entitled to receive ESL services. Demand a certified ESOL teacher. If there are none in your district, speech/language therapists may be your next best resource.
3. There are also issues regarding learning disabilities. Often schools refuse to test ELL (English Language Learners) for special education because of language difficulties, so often kids are not tested for years -- thus losing valuable time in correcting learning or language disabilities. There is another great article in the TESOL Essential Teacher relating to this issue from September 2005 called Difference or Disability, you may want to refer to it.
4. School staff and administrators may be unaware that academic difficulties in internationally adopted children may stem from the fact that they are ESL learners. As a parent, you need to advocate for your child. Make your school and your child's teacher aware of your child and his/her needs. I suggest that you get a copy of the articles mentioned here and include them in a packet to your child's teacher and school administrators.
5. The most common problems are an inability to use abstract and figurative language and an inability to understand words (limited vocabulary).