Despite nationwide efforts to reduce an academic achievement gap among various racial-ethnic groups, the reading gap between Hispanics and whites has not changed significantly—it has measured more than 25 points in each of the last 17 years (National Center for Education Statistics, 2008). The gap is partly attributed to the fact that many Hispanic children were assessed in a language they had not yet mastered: 10% of all fourth-graders were English-language learners (ELLs), and 40% of ELLs were Hispanics. Further, approximately 80% of the Hispanic ELLs were tested without accommodations such as extended time and directions read in both English and the student's native language.
The gap clearly indicates that many second-language learners are not performing at a level expected for academic success in an English-only environment. The lack of apparent academic progress often results in referrals to speech-language pathologists. SLPs are expected to determine if the child's lack of academic progress is due to a language disorder or to low linguistic skills in English. What is the SLP to do when confronted with such cases?
Bilingual Language Acquisition
Research shows that although the speech and language development of bilingual children is similar to that of monolingual children, it is not parallel (Genesee & Nicoladis, 2007). For example, past tense in Spanish is acquired earlier than in English because of its phonological salience (Bedore & Peña, 2008). In an effort to assist clinicians, ASHA has developed practice policy documents to inform them of appropriate service delivery to culturally and linguistically diverse populations (ASHA, 2004).
One of the recommended practices is to assess a bilingual child in both languages (i.e., native language and second language) following least-biased assessment principles (Goldstein, 2006). A second recommendation is that materials (formal and informal) and instructions used during assessment and intervention with bilingual learners should be culturally and linguistically appropriate. Given the paucity of assessments specifically developed for bilingual populations, alternative assessment approaches have been recommended.
One alternative assessment approach is the use of language samples. Although in practice these samples are often secondary to the use of norm-based tests, it is suggested that the samples constitute an integral component of the assessment protocol (Paul, 2006). Using language samples with school-age children presents two major advantages, particularly during elementary school. First, the task is more congruent with the requirements and challenges of schooling such as demonstrating the ability to comprehend and produce narrative structure (e.g., introduction, character development, referencing) in oral and written form. Second, analyses can directly inform the target of any necessary intervention.
Although language samples can be obtained across a variety of genres (e.g., conversational, expository), sampling using fictional storytelling is the most appropriate, given our present research base. Language skills produced during story retelling have been shown to be positively related to bilingual reading achievement (Miller, Heilmann, Nockerts, Iglesias, Fabiano, & Francis, 2006). Narrative language sampling and analyses, however, are not always used in clinical practice because of the lack of standardized protocols, the perceived time requirement for analysis, and limited comparison data (Miller, Rojas, & Nockerts, 2008).
Over the last eight years, significant progress has been made in addressing these concerns, making language sampling a more viable assessment alternative. Development of a standardized protocol for elicitation and analyses addresses ASHA practice policy documents and current research on first and second language acquisition, and yields reliable data that clinicians can use to determine the presence or absence of a true language disorder. The protocol takes into consideration clinicians' time constraints and most clinicians' lack of fluency in Spanish. It also is compliant with federal and local requirements for alternative assessments.
Narrative Language Sampling
Narrative language samples should be elicited using a procedure similar to that developed by Strong (1998): story retelling using a wordless picture book, such as Frog, Where Are You? (Mayer, 1969). During assessment the examiner should sit across from the child to promote child language, minimize pointing, and encourage use of explicit labels of characters, objects, and actions.
While looking at the book with the clinician or a Spanish-speaking interpreter, the examiner reads a pre-scripted narrative of the story in Spanish. Once finished, the examiner gives the child the book and requests that the child retell the story ("Ahora, cuéntame lo que pasó en este cuento"). The child should use the pictures in the book as an aid in the retelling. The examiner should provide only back-channel responses ("Aha," "Sí") or restate the child's last utterance.
Approximately a week later, the same procedure should be repeated using the pre-scripted English story. Children should first be tested in their native or most frequently used language (e.g., Spanish) to increase familiarity with the narrative retelling task. The narratives should be digitally recorded and transcribed using the Systematic Analysis of Language Transcripts (SALT; Miller & Iglesias, 2008) transcription format modified to account for Spanish and Spanish-influenced English (Rojas & Iglesias, 2006). If the clinician is not fluent in Spanish, support personnel (e.g., interpreters, assistants who speak the target language) should be used to elicit and transcribe the samples.
Computerized language analysis eases the time requirement and guarantees consistency of transcription and analyses. Brief three- to five-minute language samples, typically averaging 10 or more utterances, are adequate for analysis (Miller et al., 2006).
Work from our research laboratory, in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Houston, has resulted in a set of narrative language sample databases (Bilingual S/E Story Retell Databases) composed of 2,070 U.S. bilingual children (K-3) retelling Mercer Mayer's (1969) wordless picture book Frog, Where Are You? in Spanish and English. The Bilingual S/E Story Retell Databases provide a comparison data set for assessment purposes of Spanish-English bilingual children that permits matching by grade, age, gender, and/or sample length in utterances or words. More importantly, the database incorporates best practices by allowing clinicians to compare the oral language skills of bilingual children to the oral language skills of other bilingual (not monolingual) children following the identical protocol.
Although narrative language sampling generates a wide range of measurable oral language skills, three dialect-neutral language measures are recognized indicators of children's oral language development:
- Mean length of utterance in words (MLUw)—a measure of syntactic complexity
- Number of different words (NDW)—a measure of lexical diversity and productivity
- Words per minute (WPM)—a measure of verbal fluency
MLUw maintains cross-language consistency and comparability and is recommended in cross-linguistic and bilingual research (Gutiérrez-Clellen, Restrepo, Bedore, Peña, & Anderson, 2000). NDW (i.e., total number of different uninflected word roots), which estimates the diversity of the participant's vocabulary (Golberg, Paradis, & Crago, 2008), is a developmentally sensitive measure of narrative productivity for Spanish-English bilingual children (Uccelli & Páez, 2007). WPM, suggested as a measure of language proficiency for second-language learners (Riggenbach, 1991), has been correlated with age and increasing second-language proficiency (Miller & Heilmann, 2004). Given a properly transcribed language sample, the software program automatically calculates MLUw, NDW, and WPM. These three oral language measures are included in the Bilingual S/E Story Retell Databases.
Although your assessment protocol will probably include administration of formal diagnostic tools, least-biased assessment principles need to be incorporated. This incorporation may mean some adaptations or modifications to the standardized protocol, or perhaps the administration of only certain subtests. Bilingual narrative language sampling can enhance any bilingual assessment by providing spontaneous language sample measures that can supplement and clarify diagnostic information obtained by standardized assessments. Diagnostic reports used to report standard scores with a subjective interpretation of spontaneous language largely guided by clinical judgment can now be bolstered by objective, automatically calculated oral language data in each language that are compared to databases on bilingual children.
A core principle of intervention is to track progress of treatment goals over successive treatment sessions (Roth & Worthington, 2005). Narrative language sampling and analyses can be utilized to profile progress accurately over time for bilingual clients working on expressive language goals.
Oral language measures obtained at baseline can be compared at different points in time to measure progress. Although this article includes only three specific oral language measurement analyses, the software program offers an extended range of analyses (e.g., word production difficulties, lexical inventories, etc.) that can be used to further explore difficulties and specify goals.
Providing appropriate speech-language services to second-language learners is complex. We recommend obtaining language samples following the established protocol and, ideally, analyzing the data using software programs that yield comparative data.
Raúl Rojas and Aquiles Iglesias have been integral in the development of Spanish-language transcription and analyses capacity for the Systematic Analysis of Language Transcripts (SALT) from 1998 until the present. The continued involvement of both authors in the ongoing development of SALT for bilingual language sampling has been solely directed at advancing research methods and clinical application.