Impact Feature Issue on Educating K-12 English Language Learners with Disabilities

The Roles of Interpreters and Speech-Language Pathologists for ELLs with Disabilities


Henriette W. Langdon is Professor of Communicative Disorders and Sciences at San José State University, San José, California. She may be reached at or 408/924-4019.

There are an estimated 4.6 million students who are English language learners (ELLs) in K-12 schools in this country (Watkins & Liu, 2013). Manuel Chávez* is one of those children. Manuel, an only child, is a 5-year-old growing up in a bilingual Spanish-English environment. His family immigrated from Puerto Rico three years ago, and Spanish is spoken in the home, but his parents have a fairly good command of English. His kindergarten class is conducted in English only; Manuel’s parents would have preferred to enroll him in a bilingual class but there were no such programs in their community. Manuel tries to interact in English with his peers, yet his progress in acquiring more complex language has been slower than expected. He has been attending an after-school program with other English-speaking children to enhance his communication skills, but he does not interact with them as much as other children. He prefers to play alone and needs to be redirected to the activities that are offered. The school assessment team, with his parents’ input, recommended a bilingual speech and language evaluation for Manuel to document his general communication skills in both Spanish and English. The speech-language pathologist (SLP) at his school, Ms. Smith, speaks some Spanish, but her proficiency is not adequate to conduct a full assessment in that language. Collaboration with an interpreter/translator (I/T) will be necessary.

Manual’s story serves as an illustration of an occurrence in many schools across the country. Throughout the remainder of this article the process of collaboration between the SLP and an I/T to assess a student will be illustrated by using Manuel’s story, with additional suggestions for how schools can best engage in this process.

The number of certified speech-language pathologists who are bilingual is only 7% out of a total of about 150,000 members, with Spanish being the most common language spoken by those individuals (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 2012). As noted earlier, Ms. Smith, the SLP in Manuel’s school, does not speak sufficient Spanish to conduct the assessment; other bilingual SLPs in the district do not speak Spanish at all. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) includes specific federal guidelines for the identification, assessment, and intervention for children with educational needs, and it indicates that in the case of ELL students “a child shall not be determined to be a child with a disability if the determinant factor for such determination is limited English proficiency” [20 U.S.C.§1414(b)(5)(C)]. The statute also requires that schools ensure that assessments and other evaluation materials are provided and administered in the language and form most likely to yield accurate information “unless it is not feasible to so provide or administer” [20 U.S.C.§1414(b)(3)(A)(ii)]. An IDEA brief drafted by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, which is the agency regulating certification of speech-language pathologists and audiologists, makes the following statement (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, n.d):

When evaluating English language learner (ELL) students, it is important for speech-language pathologists (SLPs) and audiologists to carefully review the child’s language history to determine the language of assessment. If it is determined that the child should be evaluated in a language other than English, the SLP must use all available resources, including interpreters when necessary, to appropriately evaluate the child (p.2).

Working with an I/T to bridge the communication between two parties that do not share the same language or mode of communication is not a new process. It has been followed in many contexts such as interpreting for the Deaf, international conferences, healthcare, education, and the courts. Training and certification exist in some states for I/Ts working in legal and healthcare arenas, as well as those working with Deaf individuals, but not for those working in educational settings. Although many qualities desired in I/Ts for the schools are similar to those who work in other contexts, I/Ts who work in educational settings need to understand child development, school structure, and general academic requirements, and need to be able to work easily with children of various ages. Those working in special education also need to understand various learning challenges, due process procedures, key terminology related to speech and language development and disorders, names of assessment tools, how to elicit and transcribe a language sample, as well as have command of specific vocabulary used in writing speech and language goals and objectives.

There are several different types of interpretation/translation in which I/Ts engage. Interpretation means conveying an oral message from one language to another; translation means the same, but using written messages. Simultaneous interpretation means that the message is translated orally into a second language at the same time as it is conveyed in the first language. Sequential interpretation is when the oral message in the first language is heard and then conveyed in a second language. Sight translation means that the written text is interpreted (if rendered orally) or translated into a second language as it is read by the I/T.

 Interpreters and translators working in special education settings collaborate with other professionals and with families to gather background information about students, plan interventions, test students, and share results from the assessments. In all cases, the meetings should consist of three segments: Briefing, Interaction and Debriefing (BID process). Written guidelines exist for practicing interpreters and SLPs (Langdon, 2002). How they may play out in that three-part process is illustrated below using Manuel’s case history where a bilingual assessment was recommended.

Ms. Smith, the SLP in Manuel’s school, assessed him using tests in English to establish a baseline of his skills in the language, and she also elicited and transcribed a representative language sample. Because there are some test materials in Spanish that have been normed on bilingual Spanish-English children, Ms. Smith is the professional responsible to select those that are most appropriate tests to assess Manuel in Spanish. In addition, she is in charge of selecting the procedures to be followed and for interpreting the results of Manuel’s assessment. Finally, she must ensure that Ms. Ortiz, the I/T, has received adequate training to administer those tests and that she has been taught how to obtain a representative language sample in Spanish.

During the Briefing segment of the process, Ms. Smith will meet with Ms. Ortiz prior to the actual testing date to prepare her adequately to use the available tests, and to ensure that she follows the directions of the tests accurately and that she records all responses verbatim. Ms. Ortiz must feel secure in establishing rapport with Manuel and in redirecting him to the task at hand if he is not responding as expected. In addition, Ms. Ortiz needs to be knowledgeable about test terminology, district procedures, and confidentiality, and must feel competent in eliciting and transcribing a verbatim language sample in Spanish. For Ms. Ortiz, as for other I/Ts in a similar setting, oral proficiency is not sufficient; the bilingual I/T must be proficient in reading and writing the language. And it is essential that both professionals have been trained adequately to work together to ensure a successful collaboration (for more detail see Langdon & Cheng, 2002).

During the Interaction segment of the testing process Ms. Ortiz should not carry out any of the assessment tasks without Ms. Smith’s presence. During the assessment, Ms. Smith will observe Ms. Ortiz to ensure she does not use unnecessary cues or repeat instructions when not called for, and that her interaction with Manuel is proceeding smoothly. Ms. Smith’s presence is very important for three additional reasons: (1) to observe Manuel’s assessment behaviors, such as possible distractibility or perseveration; (2) to note his use of nonverbal communication (e.g., more gestures than words); and (3) to describe verbal patterns such as excessive pauses and hesitations when trying to express himself, or use of what may appear as very brief answers.

During Debriefing, Ms. Smith and Ms. Ortiz need to review and analyze Manuel’s responses, including the transcription of the language sample. Ms. Smith will document Ms. Ortiz’s impressions of the entire process, noting both positive and challenging aspects of the experience. They may also brainstorm about ways to improve procedures for a future assessment on another child. 

This scenario illustrates that being bilingual is not sufficient in ensuring that an individual will be a successful I/T. Being bilingual also means being biliterate. Working as an I/T and with an I/T are quite complex and require ongoing training on the part of the SLP and the I/T. School personnel should never ask a bilingual person to interpret or translate without appropriate training or preparation. The skills of an I/T working in an educational setting require special preparation. It is also important that SLPs be trained to effectively collaborate with I/Ts when assessing and working with ELL students who might have disabilities. And, because the collaboration process is lengthy and involves additional costs, procedures should be in place to facilitate the hiring and compensation of adequately prepared I/Ts by schools and districts. This collaboration process is key to fulfilling the legal mandate to ensure that ELL students with disabilities are fairly assessed and served.



  • American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2012). Demographic profile of ASHA members providing bilingual services. Retrieved from
  • American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (n.d.). Culturally and linguistically diverse students (IDEA Issue Brief). Retrieved from
  • Langdon, H. W. (2002). Interpreters and translators in communication disorders: A handbook for practitioners. Eau Claire, WI: Thinking Publications.
  • Langdon, H. W., & Cheng, L. R. (2002). Collaborating with interpreters and translators: A guide for communication disorders professionals. Eau Claire, WI: Thinking Publications.
  • Watkins, E., & Liu, K. K. (2013). Who are English language learners with disabilities? Impact: Feature Issue on Educating K-12 English Language Learners with Disabilities, 26(1), 2–3.