The Speech-Language Assessment of English Language Learning Students: A Non-Standardized Approach English language learning (ELL) children suspected of having specific-language impairment (SLI) should be assessed using the same methods as monolingual English-speaking children born and raised in the United States. In an effort to reduce over- and under-identification of ELL children as SLI, speech-language pathologists (SLP) must employ nonbiased assessment practices. ... Article
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Article  |   December 01, 2013
The Speech-Language Assessment of English Language Learning Students: A Non-Standardized Approach
Author Affiliations & Notes
  • Robert Kraemer
    Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology, Sacramento State University, Sacramento, CA
  • Allison Coltisor
    Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology, Sacramento State University, Sacramento, CA
  • Meesha Kalra
    Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology, Sacramento State University, Sacramento, CA
  • Megan Martinez
    Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology, Sacramento State University, Sacramento, CA
  • Bailey Savage
    Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology, Sacramento State University, Sacramento, CA
  • Stephanie Summers
    Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology, Sacramento State University, Sacramento, CA
  • Sowndherya Varadharajan
    Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology, Sacramento State University, Sacramento, CA
  • Disclosure: Financial: Robert Kraemer is an assistant professor in the Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology at California State University, Sacramento. Allison Coltisor, Meesha Kalra, Megan Martinez, Bailey Savage, Stephanie Summers, and Sowndherya Varadharajan have no financial interests to disclose.
    Disclosure: Financial: Robert Kraemer is an assistant professor in the Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology at California State University, Sacramento. Allison Coltisor, Meesha Kalra, Megan Martinez, Bailey Savage, Stephanie Summers, and Sowndherya Varadharajan have no financial interests to disclose.×
  • Nonfinancial: Robert Kraemer, Allison Coltisor, Meesha Kalra, Megan Martinez, Bailey Savage, Stephanie Summers, and Sowndherya Varadharajan have previously published in this subject area. The piece is referenced in this paper.
    Nonfinancial: Robert Kraemer, Allison Coltisor, Meesha Kalra, Megan Martinez, Bailey Savage, Stephanie Summers, and Sowndherya Varadharajan have previously published in this subject area. The piece is referenced in this paper.×
Article Information
Development / Speech, Voice & Prosodic Disorders / School-Based Settings / Language Disorders / Attention, Memory & Executive Functions / Articles
Article   |   December 01, 2013
The Speech-Language Assessment of English Language Learning Students: A Non-Standardized Approach
SIG 16 Perspectives on School-Based Issues, December 2013, Vol. 14, 95-101. doi:10.1044/sbi14.4.95
SIG 16 Perspectives on School-Based Issues, December 2013, Vol. 14, 95-101. doi:10.1044/sbi14.4.95

English language learning (ELL) children suspected of having specific-language impairment (SLI) should be assessed using the same methods as monolingual English-speaking children born and raised in the United States. In an effort to reduce over- and under-identification of ELL children as SLI, speech-language pathologists (SLP) must employ nonbiased assessment practices. This article presents several evidence-based, nonstandarized assessment practices SLPs can implement in place of standardized tools. As the number of ELL children SLPs come in contact with increases, the need for well-trained and knowledgeable SLPs grows. The goal of the authors is to present several well-establish, evidence-based assessment methods for assessing ELL children suspected of SLI.

The impetus for this article was born from findings of a previous study conducted by the authors of this article (Kraemer et al., 2013) that determined that speech-language pathologists (SLPs) working in a small California school district relied on English-only, norm-referenced assessment tools when assessing English language learning (ELL) children suspected of specific language impairment (SLI). In addition to relying on these tools, the SLPs seldom conducted assessments in the children’s primary language. Furthermore, they failed to incorporate caregiver interview data and document whether or not interpreters assisted in the assessment process. In response to these findings, school district administrators asked the primary author and a colleague to conduct training sessions that focused on current, evidence-based speech and language nonstandard assessment approaches (which are presented in this article). Trainings were conducted early summer of 2013 with a follow-up session held late summer of 2013. The purpose of the follow-up session was to consult with the SLPs in order determine their efficacy in conducting non-standardized assessments, answer questions pertaining to their efforts and provide technical support.
The SLPs reported experiencing no major issues regarding the implementation of the approaches. They also stated that they felt these approaches were superior to the use of standardized tools in that these approaches obtained a truer depiction of an ELL child’s language skills compared to standard scores. It is interesting to note that several SLPs shared why they continued to rely on standardized tools in light of the issues surrounding their use on ELL children (information regarding these issues is presented below). These SLPs stated that standardized tools were not only easier to administer than nonstandardized options, but standard scores provided technical information they believed lent credence to their diagnosis. When considering the information provided by these SLP reports alongside the findings of Kraemer et al. (2013)  study, it is clear that continued awareness and training of the various evidence-based, non-standardized assessment approaches is warranted.
Information presented in this article is meant to refresh the memories of some and introduce to others the many issues surrounding the assessment of ELL children suspected of SLI. This article includes a synopsis of (a) federal, state, and professional policies and practices guiding the assessment of ELLs; (b) issues using English-only and bilingual standardized assessment tools; and (c) various evidence-based, nonstandardized assessment approaches including, but not limited, to caregiver interviews, DA, language sampling in both primary (L1) and secondary (L2) languages, information processing-dependent measures, and use of interpreters.
Adapting to Trends: Increase in Number of English Language Learners
According to the U.S. Department of Education (2013), the number of bilingual school-age children rose from 4.7 to 11.2 million between 1980 and 2009. This increase from 10 to 21 percent is substantial considering that from 1985 to 2010, total public and private school enrollment rates changed by only 2 percentage points or less for 5- and 6-year-olds (96 percent in 1985 vs. 94 percent in 2010), 7- to 13-year-olds (99 percent in 1985 vs. 98 percent in 2010), and 14- to 17-year-olds (95 percent in 1985 vs. 97 percent in 2010). Furthermore, the U.S. Census Bureau (n. d.) reports that about 1 in 5 students in public schools lives in a home where English is not the primary language and predicts that by 2030, nearly 40% of the school-age population will speak a language other than English in the home. The challenge, for SLPs, will be how best to adapt their current intervention practices and, more importantly, conducting nonbiased assessments.
Based on the aforementioned data, it is likely that the number of ELL school-aged children SLPs assess will continue to increase. This probable increase in assessments must be accompanied by SLPs who are both sensitive to the needs of ELL children and knowledgeable of the assessment tools used to conduct appropriate and nonbiased assessments.
Upon review of federal, state, and professional agency policies and regulations, information pertinent to the speech-language assessment requirements of ELL students was gathered from agency policy and law resources including: California Department of Education (CDE, n.d.), Office of Civil Rights (OCR), Individuals with Disabilities in Education Improvement Act (IDEIA), and Preferred Practices of the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association (ASHA). These resources uniformly recommend that educators and SLPs need be sensitive to documenting and labeling ELL students as language impaired and/or learning disabled. However, specific guidelines for best assessment practices were not provided with one exception. It was recommended that administration of speech-language assessments to ELL students occur in their first language (L1) and English (L2). Where these resources fail is that they are vague and leave too much to interpretation by SLPs. Despite the paucity of guiding principles available from IDEIA, CDE statutes, and OCR, the ASHA website (www.asha.org) host a list of Preferred Practices documents that are available to the general public.
These documents include current research by experts in intervention and assessment of ELL students and provide a vital source of evidence-based “best practices.”
Issues Surrounding Standardized Speech-Language Assessment
Before presenting nonstandardized speech-language assessment practices, we will present two issues surrounding the use of norm-referenced standardized tests. The first issue has to do with the norming process of these tools. Although there are several English-Spanish versions of standardized tests, these tests possess several psychometric issues. First, these tests are often translated from English, resulting in poor representation of differences in the acquisition of morphosyntax (Bedore & Pena, 2008). For example, ELL students who speak Spanish may be penalized on certain subtests due to differences in typical language development rather than language delay. Second, bilingual versions of these tools have been normed using monolingual children. That is, Spanish versions are normed using monolingual Spanish-speaking children, not Spanish-English bilingual children. Therefore, such tests, by the very nature of the norming process, are psychometrically and culturally biased tests. Although it is known that using monolingual norm-referenced tools with ELL children can lead to an underestimate of the child’s linguistic skills, the practice remains commonplace (Casear & Kohler, 2007; Paradis, Genesee, & Crago, 2010).
The second issue has to do with the phenomena of disproportionality. According to the National Education Agency (NEA, 2013)  disproportionality occurs when “students of a particular population or demographic group are over- or underrepresented in special or gifted education programs relative to their group’s presence in the overall student population” (p. 1). More specifically, over-identification often occurs when an ELL child is inappropriately diagnosed as having SLI and subsequently placed in special education. Under-identification occurs when an ELL child has SLI but goes undiagnosed. The latter often occurs when the SLP assumes that the child’s poor performance is the result of learning two languages (Paradis et al., 2010). Consequences imposed on a child who has been inappropriately assessed can be far reaching in terms of whether or not the child is eligible to receive appropriate intervention. Thus, the key to determining program eligibility is consistent administration of nonbiased speech and language assessments. Therefore, ELL children need to undergo a nonstandardized approach when assessing possible language impairment.
A Nonstandardized Approach
Due to the lack norm-referenced standardized tests for ELL children suspected of having an SLI, it is imperative that SLPs (especially monolingual English-speaking SLPs) consider using nonstandardized speech-language assessment tools. According to several researchers (Campbell, Dollaghan, Needleman, & Janosky, 1997; Kohnert, Windsor, & Yim, 2006; Peña, Iglesias, & Lidz, 2001; Peña et al., 2006; Paradis et al., 2010), culturally responsive assessment practices should minimally include at the very least (1) an in-depth caregiver interview, (2) dynamic assessment (DA), (3) information processing tasks, (4) narrative skill assessment in each language, (5) review of portfolio data, and (6) the use of trained and skilled interpreters in cases when an SLP is unfamiliar with a student’s home language.
Caregiver Interview
Results from a thorough caregiver interview will provide SLPs with valuable insight into the student’s language history. If unable to speak fluently in the tested language, SLPs can arrange for an interpreter to assist with the interview process. The use of interpreters is presented below, however, it is imperative that SLPs instruct interpreters to present exactly what the SLP states, rather than a paraphrased version. Often, school district administrators require the use of a standardized form, but one should verify whether the form contains the following information: (1) developmental milestones such as age of first steps, first word, first sentence production; (2) current language abilities such as the caregiver’s knowledge of their child’s expressive language (i.e. “how do you think your child expresses themselves in comparison to siblings and/or playmates?”, caregiver’s knowledge of their child’s speech production i.e. “how do you think you child pronounces words?”, caregiver’s knowledge of their child’s native language production); (3) language spoken by family members (i.e. mother, father, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and childcare personnel); (4) age when the student was first exposed to English; (5) literacy behaviors, such as whether or not the child has been exposed to books (and the language of books exposed to) or if the child is interested in books and is reading; (6) any emotional information suggesting the child gets frustrated when communicating; and (7) family history in terms of level of education, profession, and history of learning problems. The bottom line is that this information will assist in painting a clearer picture of a child’s language status and history. The importance of the caregiver questionnaire cannot be overstated. There is an exemplary parent/caregiver questionnaire available from the Department of Linguistics at the University of Alberta Child English as Second Language (CHESL) Resource Center website http://www.chesl.ualberta.ca (Paradis, Emmerzael, & Sorenson Duncan, 2010).
Dynamic Assessment
DA is a method of assessing any child’s ability to learn and retain a new word or words over time and within a functional setting. This method has been proven to work exceptionally well for preschool and kindergarten ELL children (Patterson, Rodriguez, & Dale, 2013). In DA, a pretest-teaching-posttest method is used. During the pretest, the existing level of knowledge in both L1 and L2 is suggested. Quite often, SLPs have used norm-referenced standardized vocabulary tests to determine an estimate of word knowledge in English. It is important to use the child’s raw score in determining vocabulary knowledge as the calculation of a standard score is valid as English-only or Spanish-English vocabulary tests as these tests do not meet the norming criteria for use with ELL children. Instead, SLPs should use the raw data (i.e. the number of words and analyze the items known by the child). During the teaching phase, the SLP presents a nonword and, with the use of puppets or toys, teaches the word to the child through play. Kapantzoglou, Restrepo, and Thompson (2012)  provide an easy to use script in their paper. The post-test phase assesses learning and maintenance of concepts addressed in teaching process. This method requires practice and time as it may take several sessions to teach a word and test whether the meaning has mapped. Unlike standardized tests, DA is a process intended to evaluate children on measures that would not affect their ability to produce speech and language regardless of dominant language.
Language Sampling: Narrative Skills in L1 and L2
An assessment of an ELL student’s narrative skills in both the primary language and in English is recommended. Narrative skill analysis is best conducted with the use of wordless books such as Mayer and Mayer’s One Frog Too Many and Where Are You? The SLP must create a script before telling the story to the child. One may also opt to create a set of who, what, when, where, and why question cards prior to assessment. These can be used to help guide the child’s responses and assist in sequencing. The SLP also may choose to provide a list of transition words such as first, second, next, after that, finally, etc. For older students, idioms can be provided. Strong (1998)  suggests to assess narrative skills in the child’s primary language. In this instance an interpreter may be needed. A week later, the SLP will need to repeat the process in English. The narratives must be recorded to allow for easy analysis of the child’s mean-length of utterance (MLU) for both languages. Software (The Systematic Analysis of Language Transcripts [SALT]; Miller & Iglesias, 2008) is only available in English and Spanish Versions. Thus, SLPs assessing an ELL child speaking, for example, Punjabi, would need to investigate typical MLU for this language.
Information Processing-Dependent Measures
Children with SLI have difficulty retaining the sequential order of information (Guiberson & Rodriguez, 2013; Kohnert et al., 2006; Stokes, Wong, Fletcher, & Leonard 2006). Kan and Windsor (2010)  analyzed 846 studies on word learning. They discovered that children with SLI performed significantly lower than age-matched typically developing peers on nonword repetition tasks. Using information processing tasks as part of an assessment of ELL children is appealing in that the tasks are not biased toward a child’s life experience or time of exposure to English, degree of exposure to English, and cultural aspects of the child’s lifestyle. In essence, information processing-dependent measures assess the integrity of the underlying language learning substrate, while simultaneously minimizing the role of previous linguistic, cultural, or environmental experience. Although a standardized measure, the nonword repetition subtest of the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (CTOPP; Wagner, Torgesen, Rashotte, & Pearson, 2013), can be used as a qualitative indicator of a child’s repetition skills. That is, an SLP can administer the subtest and gauge whether or not the child’s level of repetition seems typical. A child with poor repetition skills may lack the requisite skills necessary (verbal short-term memory and lexical knowledge) to acquire a language.
Portfolio Assessment
A portfolio is a collection of work and related materials that depicts a child’s activities, accomplishments, and achievements in one or more subject areas. In portfolio assessment (PA), SLPs are able to review an ELL child’s classroom work in context. That is, the SLP can gauge how the child is performing in language-based activities such as reading, writing, and oral presentation. The SLP also needs to be aware of typical age- and grade-level academic product and be able to determine the quality of work in terms of cultural appropriateness. Portfolios typically include written work such as stories, completed forms, exercise sheets, drawings representing student content knowledge and proficiencies, and tapes of oral work, such as role-playing, presentations, or an oral account of a trip. In addition, portfolios should include classroom teacher notation of the child’s progression or regression in certain academic areas.
Interpreters
The use of interpreters is extremely important for monolingual English-speaking SLPs or SLPs who are unfamiliar with the language and culture of the ELL child. Interpreting is fundamentally paraphrasing: the interpreter listens to a speaker in one language (SLP or parent), grasps the content of what is being said, and then paraphrases his or her understanding of the meaning using the target language. It is imperative that interpreters are well-trained and understand the purpose of the activity being carried out—whether it be parent/caregiver interview or an assessment. The key to successful interpreting is finding a reliable person who is open to being trained on the various tasks required for an assessment. Often, school districts comprised of ELL families have a directory of interpreters available for their staff. In sum, one can use an interpreter to (1) assist during parent/caregiver interviews, (2) assess the child in their primary language during DA and language sampling, and (3) explain directions to a child in his or her primary language during the English portion of an assessment or activity.
Conclusion
In sum, ELL children suspected of having an SLI cannot be assessed using the same methods as monolingual English-speaking children born and raised in the United States. In an effort to reduce over- and under-identification of ELL children attending k-12 schools, SLPs (especially monolingual English-speaking SLPs) must incorporate practices such as those presented in this article. The continued reliance on English-only and Spanish-English (for Spanish-speaking ELL children) norm-referenced tests will perpetuate both the misdiagnosis and misidentification of ELL children suspected of having an SLI. As the number of ELL children that SLPs come in contact with continue to increase, the number of SLPs knowledgeable of nonbiased, evidence-based, assessment practices must match that need. Continued efforts must include ongoing training and teaching of these practices at both the k-12 and university levels. Constant communication between school-based SLPs and university faculty is a vital element in assuring institutional change and improved assessment practices continue to occur. Future research efforts must include continued insight of both environmental and biological factors affecting the language skills of school-aged, ELL children. Efforts must also include continued investigation of ecological and valid assessment practices best suited for ELL children. Although the assessment practices presented in this article have evidence to support their use, we must continue to work in improving them in order to ensure they constitute the best practices.
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