A Closer Look

Pitfalls of Using Translation and Interpretation Services in Schools

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When a child is being evaluated for special education services, it is important for the parents to understand the findings from the psychoeducational evaluation report and the IEP if the child qualifies for services. However, many school psychologists have difficulty communicating the content of these documents with culturally and linguistically diverse families because of language barriers. It is common practice to use an interpreter for meetings or to seek out translated documents. While Spanish-speaking parents may have access to standard forms in their dominant language, parents who speak other languages may need to rely on an interpreter or machine translations to understand the written information that schools provide them. As schools try their best to make content accessible to families, they should be aware of the following limitations when considering the available options.

Language Proficiency of Translators

An individual who can hold a casual conversation in two languages may not have the proficiency required to provide adequate translation for professional content. Even if the designated translator possesses a strong vocabulary in both languages, it is important to ascertain their specific expertise in special education. Without an understanding of the relevant concepts, translators may default to translating word for word rather than translating the intended meaning. Schools should assess whether their standards for selecting interpreters and translators account for both language proficiency and content knowledge. These standards should then be followed consistently when such services are used.

A translator with adequate fluency and expertise in special education can still inaccurately translate the contents of a report. This is because the interpretation of any written text can be influenced by cultural norms and is highly dependent on context (Pei, 2010). Schools may want to consider having a second translator review each translated document to ensure that the intended meaning is accurately conveyed. When using professional interpreters, schools should allow a second, albeit unofficial, interpreter to be present whenever possible. The second interpreter can be someone the family chooses to invite to the meeting.

Parents’ Existing Knowledge of Content

Parents may be unfamiliar with certain concepts that affect their comprehension of the information provided. For instance, the school may tell parents that their child will receive “push-in services.” This will probably be difficult for the parents to understand if they are not familiar with the difference between push-in and pull-out services. Schools should take time to explain what each type of service entails when they review the list of recommendations from the evaluation report. These explanations should be free of jargon and acronyms and delivered using simple and short sentences. School staff should also give parents many opportunities to ask clarifying questions.

Parents’ Literacy

Not all parents who speak another language can read and write in that language. More importantly, they may not be familiar with special education terminology in their dominant language. In this scenario, simply offering them a translated evaluation report or IEP may not help them access the information. Schools should be prepared to provide information in a simplified manner and have conversations with parents about any written documents that are shared with them.

Although it can be challenging to communicate with culturally and linguistically diverse families, it is crucial that schools take steps to make evaluation reports and IEP meetings more accessible.


Pei, D. (2010). The Subjectivity of the Translator and Socio-Cultural Norms. English Language Teaching, 3(3), 29–34.

About the Author

Sofia Pham & Jacqueline Oluoch
Sofia Pham is currently an Assistant Professor at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM). She is a licensed psychologist and a Nationally Certified School Psychologist (NCSP). Dr. Pham has extensive experience in assessment and consultation in schools as well as expertise in advanced quantitative research methods and psychometrics. She is interested in addressing educational disparities through improving cross-cultural practices in schools with data-driven decision-making processes. She has published in peer-reviewed journals, presented at national and international conferences, and led many school-wide trainings on these topics. Jacqueline Oluoch is a bilingual school psychologist currently working in several culturally diverse non-public schools in the Philadelphia school system. These schools have over 15 languages and dialects, ensuring a broad range of expertise in evaluating and interacting with multicultural families. Jacqueline is also currently pursuing a PhD in Educational Psychology at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and is focusing her research on the evaluation referral process in non-public schools that are often culturally diverse.