Initial Identification and Assessment of Bilingual Learners

by multilingualmania on July 2, 2009

in Policy


I often get questions from parents and teachers about the process as to how students are first identified as an “English Learner”. I’d like to clear up some of the misunderstandings that exist regarding this topic. I’m looking at this from a California perspective, but since the process is governed by federal law it will also be similar in other states.

When parents first enroll their children in a public school, they are given an enrollment packet which includes a questionnaire containing questions about the language(s) that the student speaks. In California and other states this questionnaire is often called a “home language survey”. The survey asks various questions about language development such as:

  • Which language did your child learn when he/she first began to talk?
  • Which language does your child most frequently speak at home?
  • Which language do you (the parents or guardians) most frequently use when speaking with your child?
  • Which language is most often spoken by adults in the home? (parents, guardians, grandparents, or any other adults)

If a parent identifies a language other than English on one of the questions, the child is identified as an “English learner”. California law requires that students who have been identified as an English learner are to be administered an assessment of English within 30 days as well as an assessment of their primary language within 90 days. The English proficiency test used in the state of California is the California English Language Development Test (CELDT).  Based on the English assessment results, the student may remain identified as an English learner or they may be classified as an I-FEP,  a student who has been initially identified as Fluent-English-Proficient.

What is important to note is that the home language survey or the process of being identified as an “English Learner” DOES NOT automatically place students in a bilingual or ESL classroom. The home language survey is merely an instrument that assists with the identification of students as English learners in order for students to receive appropriate educational services. Upon enrollment, California education code requires that parents are provided a full consultation of the educational programs in the school district. Based on the English and primary language assessment results, parents may be given a recommendation as to which program might be educationally appropriate for the child, but parents have the final choice as to which program their child is enrolled. Parents who have children identified as an English learner (i.e., a student who speaks more than one language) may choose to have their children placed in an English classroom or a bilingual classroom (if the school district offers such a program).

Why is the home language survey important?

The home language survey is important because it identifies which students are classified as English learners and may possibly require additional language assistance in the future. Once again, the home language survey does NOT automatically trigger placement in an ESL or bilingual classroom. Additional federal and state funds are also disseminated to schools based on the number of students who have been formally classified as English learners. Such funds can be used to purchase materials, software and other supplemental resources in order to assist students with language development.

As a parent, should you answer “English” on all of the questions, even if your child is bilingual?

As a parent you will need to decide whether or not you will accurately fill out the home language survey. Many parents are worried that by filling out the home language survey card then their child will be placed in a low-level ESL program. However, this is far from the truth. As a reminder, the home language survey merely identifies the child as a potential English learner and parents have the right to choose placement in an appropriate program. Other parents are opposed to their child being given an assessment of English and their primary language. As a parent you will need to decide what is best for your child.

What’s my personal opinion? I believe that you should accurately fill out the home language survey and allow your child to be assessed regarding their first and second language development. Tests are insignificant in my world, but at least they give us some sort of information regarding whether the student is dominant in one language or is a balanced bilingual when they first enter school. If your child ever does require additional assistance, the initial assessment results provide educators with information regarding their language development. Some parents are actually surprised because they thought that their child was less dominant in a certain language, yet the assessment results showed a different story. Sometimes we never know what children are capable of in either language until they are given proficiency assessments in both languages!!

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Language Programs in California for English Learners

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