A Diagnostic Dilemma

Immigrants to the United States have come for a variety of reasons. Some bring well developed educational and vocational skills in search of a better opportunity to use them. Others are fleeing threatening conditions for safety and want a chance to raise children in a more promising environment.

Those who have been exposed to violence may well have acquired a brain injury before or incurred abuse after they left. When they come to a classroom with a wish to learn English, earn a GED, or both, they bring this history with them along with psychological trauma.

So many possible influences on learning ability may be involved: disturbing memories and fear, possible sources of brain injury (including toxins, severe malnutrition and domestic violence), lack of opportunity to acquire literacy and learning skills in the country of origin, and the difficulty of learning English while immersed in a culture that continues to use a language other than English. Current family stress or violence may also contribute.

If it were possible to understand the way information is processed in the country of origin, it would guide the teacher toward choosing communication strategies aligned with it. For example, if information is oral, then teach orally and hope the person can retain and succeed on an oral exam. If symbols are used, create or employ letters and words, because the person understands the representational nature of symbols. But in the absence of any understanding of written language as a source of meaning, the problem is much deeper than that created by the presence of brain injury. It is trying to teach someone unaccustomed to American learning strategies, who has few building blocks with which to build English language skills. As numbers are also a symbolic language, the same assumption applies to math.

Recommendation: For those ELL students who have acquired literacy skills in another language and who also report evidence of a brain injury, use both ELL methods and strategies discussed in this section.

For those ELL students who have not acquired literacy skills in another language, work with them as non-literate ELL students, regardless of whether there is evidence of brain injury. If a brain injury was caused by a gunshot or knife wound, the damage may not interfere substantially with the person’s ability to learn. It depends on where the wound is located and how deep. But if a moderate to severe, generalized brain injury is present, the chance of this person acquiring usable English, much less GED-level knowledge is not encouraging.

The nature of their home life in America and the extent they have left loved ones behind is also pertinent. If they are not worrying about relatives abroad and their home life is stable and supportive, their chances of learning English are better than if they are constantly distracted by sources of anxiety and depression.

Instruction that is geared to a group of like immigrants may serve a social purpose that encourages hope and self esteem along with small gains in literacy and comfort in a new environment.