Beyond YourCELF: Expanding Language Assessment To be successful learners in the educational setting, school-age children are required to have functional oral and written language skills. Traditional language testing conducted by the speech-language pathologist has often focused primarily on assessment of the most basic aspects of oral language. Many school-age children who are evidencing language-based ... Article
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Article  |   April 01, 2003
Beyond YourCELF: Expanding Language Assessment
Author Affiliations & Notes
  • Jennifer P. Van Gilder
    Communication Disorders Clinic, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC
  • Dawn C. Botts
    Communication Disorders Clinic, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC
Article Information
School-Based Settings / Language Disorders / Attention, Memory & Executive Functions / Articles
Article   |   April 01, 2003
Beyond YourCELF: Expanding Language Assessment
SIG 16 Perspectives on School-Based Issues, April 2003, Vol. 4, 13-17. doi:10.1044/sbi4.1.13
SIG 16 Perspectives on School-Based Issues, April 2003, Vol. 4, 13-17. doi:10.1044/sbi4.1.13
To be successful learners in the educational setting, school-age children are required to have functional oral and written language skills. Traditional language testing conducted by the speech-language pathologist has often focused primarily on assessment of the most basic aspects of oral language. Many school-age children who are evidencing language-based learning difficulties “…have mastered the basic vocabulary, sentence structures, and functions of their language, but have trouble progressing beyond these basic skills to higher levels of language performance” (Paul, 2001, p. 387). Oftentimes, these children are struggling to acquire not only higher-level oral language skills, but also written language skills. Therefore, to accurately reflect the needs of the school-age child, language assessment must include in-depth testing of both oral and written language skills.
While it is critical to assess both the oral and written language systems, the two areas are not mutually exclusive and should not be considered as separate, unrelated entities. These two systems are intricately related. Oral language provides the foundation for acquiring literacy skills. According to Paul (2001), “…investigators studying the reading process consider reading and writing to be language-based skills that simply use visual input as a portal into the language processing system” (p. 397). A child’s ability to become proficient with written language forms will rely heavily upon the child’s oral language skills. For instance, a child must have an adequate oral vocabulary in order to comprehend what is read or to apply vocabulary knowledge in written expression. As a child becomes a more proficient reader, the exposure to more complex written language forms causes simultaneous growth in oral language skills. Expansion of the oral language system facilitates both comprehension of increasingly complex reading material and production of more advanced forms of written expression.
The role of the speech-language pathologist in assessing oral language is well established. However, the role of the speech-language pathologist in assessing written language has not been clearly defined until recently. In 2000, ASHA clearly defined and described the role of the speech-language pathologist in addressing written language in the document, “Roles and Responsibilities of Speech-Language Pathologists with Respect to Reading and Writing in Children and Adolescents.” According to that document, appropriate roles and responsibilities for speech-language pathologists include, but are not limited to, prevention, identification, assessment, intervention, and participation in the general literacy efforts of a community (ASHA, 2000). This article will suggest ways the speech-language pathologist can expand a basic oral language testing battery to include assessment of both higher-level oral language skills and written language skills.
Traditional Language Assessment
Language assessment of the school-age child has traditionally focused on the oral language system. The areas typically examined include language form and content. Language form, or syntax, includes rules that govern phonology, morphology, and word order. Language content, or semantics, includes such components as vocabulary, word meaning, and the relationships between word meanings. Standardized language assessment tools often explore these areas in receptive (auditory or listening) and expressive (oral or speaking) modes. Commonly used standardized instruments include the Test of Language Development–Primary, Third Edition (TOLD-P:3; Newcomer & Hammill, 1997), the Test of Language Development-Intermediate, Third Edition (TOLD-I:3; Hammill & Newcomer, 1997), the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals-Third Edition (CELF-3; Semel, Wiig, & Secord, 1995), the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-Third Edition (PPVT-III; Lloyd & Dunn, 1997), the Expressive Vocabulary Test (EVT; Williams, 1997), the Receptive One-Word Picture Vocabulary Test (ROWPVT; Brownwell, 2000), and the Expressive One-Word Picture Vocabulary Test (EOWPVT); Brownwell, 2000). These types of language assessment tools provide a general picture of a child’s fundamental oral language skills. However, this information constitutes only a portion of that which is necessary to adequately assess the child’s oral language system and fails to address the skills that influence a child’s competence in the written language system.
Expanded Language Assessment
Within the public school setting, a child is typically referred for language testing due to an inability to meet the demands of the classroom. The purpose for testing the child’s language skills is to determine if the child meets eligibility criteria for special services. Often, this language testing is restricted to assessment of fundamental language skills. In many cases, the child will perform within acceptable parameters on basic language tasks, even though language difficulties are present. Therefore, difficulties with higher-level oral language skills often go unrecognized and unaddressed.
In order to obtain a more representative picture of a child’s oral language, it is necessary to investigate beyond the fundamental level. Critical oral language areas to assess include phonological processing skills, auditory perceptual skills, oral narrative skills, and metalinguistic skills. Phonological processing refers to the use of the sound structure of one’s oral language to process written language (i.e., reading, writing) and oral language (i.e., listening, speaking). Weaknesses in phonological processing have been directly linked to difficulties with reading and spelling skills, which are critical for academic success. The Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (CTOPP; Wagner, Torgesen, & Rashotte, 1999) may be used to assess the following phonological processing components: phonological awareness, phonological memory, and rapid naming. The Lindamood Auditory Conceptualization Test-Revised (LAC; Linda-mood & Lindamood, 1979) provides information about a child’s phonemic awareness skills. Phonemic awareness may be defined as the ability to manipulate sounds by judging the sameness, difference, order, and number of sounds in words or syllables. Phonemic awareness is necessary for the acquisition of functional decoding and spelling skills.
Auditory perceptual skills may be described as the ability to perceive and process auditory information, which is critical for success in the educational setting. The Test of Auditory Perceptual Skills-Revised (TAPS-R; Gardner, 1996) and the Test of Auditory Perceptual Skills: Upper Level (TAPS-UL; Gardner, 1994) assess the following auditory perceptual skills: immediate recall of rote auditory information, discrimination of word sounds, understanding of verbal directions, and using common sense in solving thought problems. These tests provide information about basic auditory perceptual skills. However, results from this type of testing do not identify or dismiss the presence of an auditory processing disorder. Such a diagnosis is typically made by a certified audiologist following an in-depth battery of testing. For more information, please investigate the topic of auditory processing disorders.
Oral narrative skills are generally thought of as the ability to tell a story. These stories may include recounts of personal events or reports of the imagination. According to Westby (1998), narratives are midway between oral and literate language and form a transition from the more informal language used at home to the more literate language used in school. Weak oral narrative skills may adversely affect a child’s ability to fully participate in the classroom. Therefore, it is essential to assess oral narrative skills. The Detroit Tests of Learning Aptitude - Fourth Edition (DTLA-4; Hammill, 1998) includes the Story Construction subtest, which provides three opportunities for a child to create an oral narrative from picture prompts. Oral narrative abilities may also easily be assessed informally through such techniques as classroom observation or conversations with the child.
Metalinguistics is the ability to reflect on and make judgments about one’s own language. Metalinguistics includes such skills as defining words; understanding synonyms, antonyms, and homonyms; recognizing and editing errors in written language; understanding ambiguity; understanding multiple meanings; and, making inferences (Westby, 1998; Paul, 2001; Larsen & McKinley, 1995). These advanced language skills are necessary for successful use of both oral and written language in the classroom. The Test of Language Competence-Expanded Edition (TLC-E); Wiig & Secord, 1989) assesses the following metalinguistic skills: figurative language, ambiguous language, making inferences, and oral expression (recreating speech acts). These skills can also be informally assessed through such techniques as classroom observation and portfolio review.
In addition to expanding the oral language testing battery, it is necessary to assess written language skills, including reading, written expression, and spelling. These components of written language may be directly assessed by the speech-language pathologist through administration of written language testing. However, information regarding these areas may also be obtained from the classroom teacher, a reading specialist, or an exceptional children’s teacher.
Reading skills should be assessed at a contextualized level, in paragraphs or passages, rather than solely at a single word level. Reading of single words can provide information about a child’s decoding and word recognition skills, but is not a functional measure of reading ability. Reading is not an act performed for the sole purpose of decoding words. Rather, a child reads to comprehend, to learn, and to communicate. Many children can read isolated words at an age-appropriate or grade-appropriate level, but are unable to perform contextualized reading tasks as required in the typical classroom setting. Clearly, their reading is not a functional skill for learning and performing in the classroom.
Assessment of reading skills should include examination of the child’s oral and silent reading. Oral reading assessment should include the following components: single word decoding, contextualized reading (e.g., passages or paragraphs), reading rate, reading accuracy, and reading comprehension. Assessment of silent reading may be conducted when a child has begun to read silently, usually at the first to second grade level. Silent reading assessment should involve the use of passages or paragraphs, not single words, and should include the following components: reading rate and reading comprehension. The Gray Oral Reading Test - Fourth Edition (GORT-4; Wiederholt & Blalock, 2001) uses passages of increasing length and difficulty to assess the following areas: reading accuracy, reading rate, reading fluency, and reading comprehension. The Gray Silent Reading Test (GSRT; Wiederholt & Blalock, 2000) uses passages of increasing length and difficulty to assess silent reading comprehension. The use of informal reading inventories is common in the public school setting. Informal reading inventories, such as the Analytical Reading Inventory (ARI); Woods & Moe, 1999), often provide a more comprehensive examination of a child’s reading skills and typically include the following components: single word decoding/recognition, oral reading accuracy (passages), oral reading rate, oral reading comprehension, silent reading rate (passages), and silent reading comprehension. The ARI (Woods & Moe, 1999) offers both narrative and expository reading passages. Some reading inventories also provide examination of spelling skills and listening comprehension skills (passages). Information obtained about a child’s reading ability based solely upon reading assessment at a single word level is not reflective of the child’s true reading ability. Only after assessing reading skills on a contextual level can appropriate conclusions be drawn and decisions made about the child’s reading ability.
Written expression is the ability to communicate in writing. It is “…a complex form of communication requiring the integration of many different cognitive and linguistic variables. Written expression requires that the reader simultaneously deal with a subject, text, and reader. Written expression is certainly dependent on a writer’s experiences as well as oral language and reading competencies” (Gregg & Hafer, 2001, p. 103). Important components for assessment include the following: conventions of writing (spelling, punctuation, and capitalization), linguistic aspects (semantics and syntax), and cognitive components (planning, organization, transitions, and story structure). The Test of Written Language - Third Edition (TOWL-3; Hammill & Larsen, 1996) includes the following components: Contextual Conventions, Contextual Language, and Story Construction. Written expression may also be assessed informally through such techniques as portfolio review and informal analysis of writing samples.
Spelling requires the application of knowledge of the sound structure of language, letter-sound correspondences, spelling patterns, and sight words. Most spelling assessments are comprised of a combination of predictable and unpredictable real words. Since many children who struggle with spelling have memorized a large bank of words as a compensatory strategy to circumvent a lack of spelling skills, use of real words may provide an inflated representation of their spelling abilities. In these cases, the use of nonsense words or syllables is necessary to obtain accurate information about a child’s underlying knowledge of the sound structure of language, letter-sound correspondences, and spelling patterns. The Test of Written Spelling - Fourth Edition (TWS-4; Larsen, Hammill, & Moats, 1999) assesses single word spelling abilities of predictable and unpredictable real words. Some informal reading inventories assess spelling through use of lists of real and nonsense words organized by grade level. Informal analysis of a child’s writing samples also provides excellent information about spelling abilities at a contextual level.
Summary
A representative picture of a child’s language abilities is obtainable only by ensuring that the oral language system has been investigated in depth and by incorporating assessment of the written language system. Oral and written language are intricately linked, particularly for the school-age child who is required to meet the stringent demands of the classroom setting. Limiting language assessment to only the most basic oral language skills fails to address possible difficulties with higher-level language skills, which the school-age child is expected to possess and use for learning in the classroom. An assessment battery that consists of only one or two language tests not only neglects the oral language system, it also ignores the relationship between oral and written language. However, an assessment that includes a thorough analysis of phonological processing, auditory processing, oral narrative, and metalinguistic skills, as well as reading, written expression, and spelling skills provides critical details necessary to effectively address a child’s language needs.
References
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Continuing Education Questions
  1. Language tests such as the CELF-3 or the TOLD-I:3 assess

    • higher-level language skills.

    • language form and content.

    • phonological processing skills.

    • all of the above.

  2. A critical area to assess in an in-depth evaluation of oral language would be

    • metalinguistics.

    • phonological processing.

    • oral narrative skills.

    • all of the above.

  3. To obtain a picture of a child’s functional reading ability, reading assessment must include examination of

    • single-word decoding.

    • letter-sound correspondences.

    • contextual reading exercises.

    • repeated oral readings.

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