As a language-sensitive subject-teacher, teachers and principals also must have detailed knowledge about diagnosis and support. Especially when a student is speaking in a second (or third, or fourth, etc.) language, it can be difficult to diagnose a language disorder, selective mutism or any other learning deficit.
Selective mutism, for example, occurs when a pupil goes through a long phase where he/she is silent in the classroom but do speak at home. This can have a number of causes: there can be a social-emotional cause, such as a stressful situation at home or a lack of confidence in the second language; or linguistic factors such as having trouble suppressing the first language when producing the school’s language (Le Pichon & De Jonge 2015). On basis of different psychiatric and linguistic studies, Le Pichon & De Jonge argue that silence at school during 3 to 5 months is a frequent reaction to the confrontation with a new language environment, but insist on the fact that if the silence lasts longer than 5 months, you should ask yourself if the pupil should get external aid (Le Pichon & De Jonge 2015: 432). A period of silence at school of more than 5 months causes a notable lack of knowledge (ibid.: 434).
Le Pichon and De Jonge mention some good questions to ask to identify selective mutism and to know what kind of help you may need to deal with it. This is illustrated in the following flowchart.
One of the tasks used (among other things) to diagnose language disorders is a quasi-universal non-word repetition task (Boerma et al, 2015). In this task, children try to repeat nonsense words as accurately as possible. However, Boerma et al (2015) show that the results multilingual children get are not always reliable: chances are that a multilingual child scores less well on this task than a monolingual child because the task is somewhat dependent on the child’s home languages. Because of this it is easy to make a misdiagnosis. The authors of this article have tested a so-called universal version of the test, and this version was better suited for diagnosing multilingual children who might have a language disorder.
Something else to keep in mind is how the classrooms are composed. When pupils transition from a reception class to a regular class, they can be put together with other children of the same age, or they are paired up with respect to their language proficiency level. Both methods have their merits and their disadvantages.
Finally, teachers and board members need to be aware of different strategies of differentiation. This includes scaffolding on an individual micro-level of each student and on the macro-level of planning of instruction for the classroom. Concrete examples of differentiation strategies are further discussed in the EDINA differentiation modules.
To conclude, teachers and principals diagnose individual linguistic preconditions and development processes. They have to take into account variations in pupils’ language achievements, background knowledge, interests and abilities. Therefore, the teacher needs to acquire a minimal knowledge of the pupils’ language and cultural biographies and of their academic background.
The scientific research points to the advantages of multilingual education, such as positive impacts in achievement for non-dominant groups (Kosonen, 2005; Cummins, Hu, Markus & Montero 2015; Gogolin, Neumann and Roth, 2007) and increased participation of parents in children’s learning process, which in turn establishes a relationship of mutual confidence and intercultural understanding between schools and families (Benson, 2002; Meier, 2012).