Assessment Tools, Techniques, and Data Sources

Following is a list of assessment tools, techniques, and data sources that can be used to assess speech and language ability. Clinicians select the most appropriate method(s) and measure(s) to use for a particular individual, based on his or her age, cultural background, and values; language profile; severity of suspected communication disorder; and factors related to language functioning (e.g., hearing loss and cognitive functioning).

Standardized Assessments

Standardized assessments are empirically developed evaluation tools with established statistical reliability and validity. A standardized test is one that requires all test takers to answer the same items/questions in the same way and that is scored in a standard or consistent way, thus making it possible to compare the relative performance of individuals or groups of individuals. There are two types of standardized assessment instruments: norm-referenced and criterion-referenced.

Norm-Referenced Tests

Norm-referenced tests are standardized tests designed to compare and rank test takers in relation to one another. Using a norm-referenced test makes it possible to compare an individual's score(s) with those of a large group of statistically selected individuals—usually of the same age or grade level—who have already taken the test. A norm-referenced score is typically reported as a percentile ranking. For example, an individual who scores in the 90th percentile has performed as well as or better than 90% of other test takers of the same age or grade level (i.e., those in the norming group).

Criterion-Referenced Tests

Criterion-referenced tests are standardized tests that measure an individual's performance against a set of predetermined criteria or performance standards (e.g., descriptions of what an individual is expected to know or be able to do at a specific stage of development or level of education). In educational settings, criterion-referenced tests may be used to assess whether the student has learned a specific body of knowledge. It is possible, and in fact desirable, for an individual to pass or earn a perfect score on a criterion-referenced test.

Criterion-referenced procedures can also be developed informally to address specific questions (e.g., understanding of wh- questions, automatic recognition of grade-appropriate words in print) and to assess response to intervention (RTI).

Selecting and Interpreting Standardized Assessments

Coexisting disorders or diagnoses are considered when selecting standardized assessment tools, as deficits may vary from population to population (e.g., ADHD, TBI, ASD). In addition, standardized tests should be culturally and linguistically appropriate.  Standard scores should not be determined if the norming sample does not adequately represent the individual being assessed. It is essential to consider the language spoken and/or dialect used by the child before selecting a standardized assessment. Translation of a standardized assessment invalidates the results. Standard scores cannot be reported when the assessment has been translated. See Cultural Responsiveness and Multilingual Service Delivery in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology. In such cases a clinician can use available standardized language assessments for children who speak languages other than English.

Parent/Teacher/Self-Report Measures

Parent, teacher, and self-report measures include rating scales, checklists, inventories, and questionnaires completed by the family members/caregiver, teacher, or individual. Findings from multiple sources (e.g., family vs. teacher vs. self-report) may be compared to obtain a comprehensive profile of communication skills. For individuals who speak a language other than English in the home, the clinician needs to gather detailed information about use of the primary language and English. When possible, checklists should be made available in the person's native language to obtain the most accurate information.

Ethnographic Interviewing

Ethnographic interviewing is a technique that uses open-ended questions, restatement, and summarizing for clarification for obtaining information from the perspective of the individual and other people in his or her environment (e.g., family members/caregiver, teacher). The technique avoids the use of leading questions and "why" questions. Ethnographic interviewing can be used to validate other assessment findings.

Clinicians should refrain from creating assumptions about individuals or families based on general cultural, ethnic, or racial information. Ethnographic interviewing can be used to gather specific knowledge of the views of clients and their families, including cultural and linguistic variables. See Westby, Burda, and Mehta (2003) and cultural responsiveness.

Observation Techniques

Analog Tasks

Analog tasks involve observation of the individual in simulated or staged communication contexts that mimic real-world events, including peer group activities and simulated workplace interactions.

Naturalistic Observation

Naturalistic observation is observation of the individual in everyday social settings with others, including academic settings. Criterion-referenced assessments may be used during naturalistic observations to document an individual's functional use of language across social situations.

Systematic Observation and Contextual Analysis

Systematic observation and contextual analysis involve observation across a variety of contexts (e.g., settings and tasks) to obtain descriptions of language functioning and identify specific problem areas and contextual variables that play a part in the individual's communication abilities. Systematic observation along with contextual analysis can be used to complement findings from other assessment procedures.

Language Sampling

Language sampling techniques are used to elicit spontaneous language in various communication contexts (e.g., free play, conversation/dialogue, narration, expository speech) and then derive measures (e.g., Mean Length of Utterance [MLU], Type-Token Ratio [TTR], Developmental Sentence Scoring [DSS], clausal density, use of subordinate clauses) to complement data obtained from standardized language assessments.

Dynamic Assessment

Dynamic assessment is a method in which an individual is tested, skills are addressed, and then the individual is retested to determine treatment outcome (i.e., test, teach and retest). Dynamic assessment can help distinguish between a language difference and a language disorder and can be used in conjunction with standardized assessments and language sampling.

Curriculum-Based Assessment

Curriculum-based assessment is used to determine the language demands of the curriculum and to assess the student's ability to meet those demands. The technique is based on the curriculum the student is currently mastering and may utilize materials being used in the student's classroom. The assessment can come directly from a textbook (e.g., a chapter test), or it can involve the use of probes or other types of direct assessment. Curriculum-based assessment results can be used to develop instructional goals and to evaluate the student's progress in developing competence with the language of the curriculum.


Westby, C., Burda, A., & Mehta, Z. (2003, April 29). Asking the right questions in the right ways: Strategies for ethnographic interviewing. The ASHA Leader.

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