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Comprehensive Assessment of Adolescents with Suspected Language and Literacy Disorders

When many of us think of such labels as “language disorder” or “learning disability”, very infrequently do adolescents (students 13-18 years of age) come to mind. Even today, much of the research in the field of pediatric speech pathology involves preschool and school-aged children under 12 years of age.

The prevalence and incidence of language disorders in adolescents is very difficult to estimate due to which some authors even referred to them as a Neglected Group with Significant Problems having an “invisible disability“.

Far fewer speech language therapists work with middle-schoolers vs. preschoolers and elementary aged kids, while the numbers of SLPs working with high-school aged students is frequently in single digits in some districts while being completely absent in others. In fact, I am frequently told (and often see it firsthand) that some administrators try to cut costs by attempting to dictate a discontinuation of speech-language services on the grounds that adolescents “are far too old for services” or can “no longer benefit from services”.  

But of course the above is blatantly false. Undetected language deficits don’t resolve with age! They simply exacerbate and turn into learning disabilities. Similarly, lack of necessary and appropriate service provision to children with diagnosed language impairments  at the middle-school and high-school levels will strongly affect their academic functioning and hinder their future vocational outcomes.

A cursory look at the Speech Pathology Related  Facebook Groups as well as ASHA forums reveals numerous SLPs in a continual search for best methods of assessment and treatment of older students (~12-18 years of age).  

Consequently, today I wanted to dedicate this post to a review of standardized assessments options available for students 12-18 years of age with suspected language and literacy deficits.

Most comprehensive standardized assessments, “typically focus on semantics, syntax, morphology, and phonology, as these are the performance areas in which specific skill development can be most objectively measured” (Hill & Coufal, 2005, p 35). Very few of them actually incorporate aspects of literacy into its subtests in a meaningful way.  Yet by the time students reach adolescence literacy begins to play an incredibly critical role not just in all the aspects of academics but also social communication.

So when it comes to comprehensive general language testing I highly recommended that SLPs select  standardized measures with a focus on not  language but also literacy.  Presently of all the comprehensive assessment tools   I highly prefer the Test of Integrated Language and Literacy (TILLS) for students up to 18 years of age, (see a comprehensive review HERE),  which covers such literacy areas as phonological awareness, reading fluency, reading comprehension, writing and spelling in addition to traditional language areas as as vocabulary awareness, following directions, story recall, etc. However,  while comprehensive tests have  numerous  uses,  their sole  administration will not constitute an adequate assessment.

So what areas should be assessed during language and literacy testing?  Below are  a few suggestions of standardized testing measures (and informal procedures) aimed at exploring the student abilities in particular areas pertaining to language and literacy.

TESTS OF LANGUAGE

TESTS OF LITERACYscreen-shot-2016-10-09-at-2-29-57-pm

It is understandable how given the sheer amount of assessment choices some clinicians may feel overwhelmed and be unsure regarding the starting point of an adolescent evaluation.   Consequently, the use the checklist prior to the initiation of assessment may be highly useful in order to identify potential language weaknesses/deficits the students might experience. It will also allow clinicians to prioritize the hierarchy of testing instruments to use during the assessment.  

While clinicians are encouraged to develop such checklists for their personal use,  those who lack time and opportunity can locate a number of already available checklists on the market. 

For example, the comprehensive 6-page Speech Language Assessment Checklist for Adolescents (below) can be given to caregivers, classroom teachers, and even older students in order to check off the most pressing difficulties the student is experiencing in an academic setting. 

It is important for several individuals to fill out this checklist to ensure consistency of deficits, prior to determining whether an assessment is warranted in the first place and if so, which assessment areas need to be targeted.

Checklist Categories:

  1. Receptive Languageadolescent checklist
  2. Memory, Attention and Cognition
  3. Expressive Language
  4. Vocabulary
  5. Discourse
  6. Speech
  7. Voice
  8. Prosody
  9. Resonance
  10. Reading
  11. Writing
  12. Problem Solving
  13. Pragmatic Language Skills
  14. Social Emotional Development
  15. Executive Functioning

alolescent pages sample

Based on the checklist administration SLPs can  reliably pinpoint the student’s areas of deficits without needless administration of unrelated/unnecessary testing instruments.  For example, if a student presents with deficits in the areas of problem solving and social pragmatic functioning the administration of a general language test such as the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals® – Fifth Edition (CELF-5) would NOT be functional (especially if the previous administration of educational testing did not reveal any red flags). In contrast, the administration of such tests as Test Of Problem Solving 2 Adolescent and Social Language Development Test Adolescent would be better reflective of the student’s deficits in the above areas. (Checklist HERE; checklist sample HERE). 

It is very important to understand that students presenting with language and literacy deficits will not outgrow these deficits on their own. While there may be “a time period when the students with early language disorders seem to catch up with their typically developing peers” (e.g., illusory recovery) by undergoing a “spurt” in language learning”(Sun & Wallach, 2014). These spurts are typically followed by a “post-spurt plateau”. This is because due to the ongoing challenges and an increase in academic demands “many children with early language disorders fail to “outgrow” these difficulties or catch up with their typically developing peers”(Sun & Wallach, 2014).  As such many adolescents “may not show academic or language-related learning difficulties until linguistic and cognitive demands of the task increase and exceed their limited abilities” (Sun & Wallach, 2014).  Consequently, SLPs must consider the “underlying deficits that may be masked by early oral language development” and “evaluate a child’s language abilities in all modalities, including pre-literacy, literacy, and metalinguistic skills” (Sun & Wallach, 2014).

References:

  1. Hill, J. W., & Coufal, K. L. (2005). Emotional/behavioral disorders: A retrospective examination of social skills, linguistics, and student outcomes. Communication Disorders Quarterly27(1), 33–46.
  2. Sun, L & Wallach G (2014) Language Disorders Are Learning Disabilities: Challenges on the Divergent and Diverse Paths to Language Learning Disability. Topics in Language Disorders, Vol. 34; (1), pp 25–38.

Helpful Smart Speech Therapy Resources 

  1. Assessment of Adolescents with Language and Literacy Impairments in Speech Language Pathology 
  2. Assessment and Treatment Bundles 
  3. Social Communication Materials
  4. Multicultural Materials 

 

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Review and Giveaway of Strategies by Numbers (by SPELL-Links)

SPELL-Links Strategies By The Numbers

Today I am reviewing a fairly recently released (2014) book from the Learning By Design, Inc. team entitled SPELL-Links Strategies by Numbers.   This 57 page instructional guide was created to support the implementation of the SPELL-Links to Reading and Writing Word Study Curriculum as well as to help students “use the SPELL-Links strategies anytime in any setting.’ (p. iii) Its purpose is to enable students to strategize their way to writing and reading rather than overrelying on memorization techniques.

SPELL-Links Strategies by Numbers contains in-depth explanations of SPELL-Links’ 14 strategies for spelling and reading, detailed instructions on how to teach the strategies during writing and reading activities, as well as helpful ideas for supporting students as they further acquire literacy skills.  It can be used by a wide array of professionals including classroom teachers, speech-language pathologists, reading improvement teachers, learning disabilities teachers, aides, tutors, as well as parents for teaching word study lessons or as carryover and practice during reading and writing tasks.

The author includes a list of key terms used in the book as well as a guide with instructional icons screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-10-57-10-amscreen-shot-2016-09-24-at-10-56-46-am

The goal of the 14 strategies listed in the book is to build vocabulary, improve spelling, word decoding, reading fluency, and reading comprehension as well as improve students’ writing skills. While each strategy is presented in isolation under its own section, the end result is for students to fully integrate and apply multiple strategies when reading or writing.

Here’s the list of the 14 strategies in order of appearance as applied to spelling and reading:

  1. Sound It Out
  2. Check the Order
  3. Catch the Beat
  4. Listen Up
  5. A Little Stress Will Help This Mess
  6. No Fouls
  7. Play By the Rules
  8. Use Rhyme This Time
  9. Spell What You Mean and Mean What You Spell
  10. Be Smart About Word Parts
  11. Build on the Base
  12. Invite the Relatives
  13. Fix the Funny Stuff
  14. Look It Up

Each strategy includes highly detailed implementation instructions with students including pictorial support as well as both instructor and student guidance for practice at various levels during writing and reading tasks.  At the end of the book all the strategies are succinctly summarized in handy table, which is also provided to the user separately as a double sided one page insert printed on reinforced paper to be used as a guide when the book is not handy.

There are a number of things I like about the book. Firstly, of course it is based on the latest research in reading, writing, and spelling. Secondly, clinicians can use it the absence  of SPELL-Links to Reading and Writing Word Study Curriculum since the author’s purpose was to have the students  “use the SPELL-Links strategies anytime in any setting.’ (p. iii).  Thirdly, I love the fact that the book is based on the connectionist research model, which views spelling and reading as a “dynamic interplay of phonological, orthographic, and semantic knowledge.” (iii). Consequently, the listed strategies focus on simultaneously developing and strengthening phonological, orthographic, semantic and morphological knowledge during reading and writing tasks.

You can find this book for purchase on the Learning By Design, Inc. Store HERE. Finally, due to the generosity of Jan Wasowicz  PhD the book’s author, you can enter my Rafflecopter giveaway below for a chance to win your own copy!

 

 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Review of the Test of Integrated Language and Literacy (TILLS)

The Test of Integrated Language & Literacy Skills (TILLS) is an assessment of oral and written language abilities in students 6–18 years of age. Published in the Fall 2015, it is  unique in the way that it is aimed to thoroughly assess skills  such as reading fluency, reading comprehension, phonological awareness,  spelling, as well as writing  in school age children.   As I have been using this test since the time it was published,  I wanted to take an opportunity today to share just a few of my impressions of this assessment.

               

First, a little background on why I chose to purchase this test  so shortly after I had purchased the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals – 5 (CELF-5).   Soon after I started using the CELF-5  I noticed that  it tended to considerably overinflate my students’ scores  on a variety of its subtests.  In fact,  I noticed that unless a student had a fairly severe degree of impairment,  the majority of his/her scores  came out either low/slightly below average (click for more info on why this was happening HERE, HEREor HERE). Consequently,  I was excited to hear regarding TILLS development, almost simultaneously through ASHA as well as SPELL-Links ListServe.   I was particularly happy  because I knew some of this test’s developers (e.g., Dr. Elena Plante, Dr. Nickola Nelson) have published solid research in the areas of  psychometrics and literacy respectively.

According to the TILLS developers it has been standardized for 3 purposes:

  • to identify language and literacy disorders
  • to document patterns of relative strengths and weaknesses
  • to track changes in language and literacy skills over time

The testing subtests can be administered in isolation (with the exception of a few) or in its entirety.  The administration of all the 15 subtests may take approximately an hour and a half, while the administration of the core subtests typically takes ~45 mins).

Please note that there are 5 subtests that should not be administered to students 6;0-6;5 years of age because many typically developing students are still mastering the required skills.

  • Subtest 5 – Nonword Spelling
  • Subtest 7 – Reading Comprehension
  • Subtest 10 – Nonword Reading
  • Subtest 11 – Reading Fluency
  • Subtest 12 – Written Expression

However,  if needed, there are several tests of early reading and writing abilities which are available for assessment of children under 6:5 years of age with suspected literacy deficits (e.g., TERA-3: Test of Early Reading Ability–Third Edition; Test of Early Written Language, Third Edition-TEWL-3, etc.).

Let’s move on to take a deeper look at its subtests. Please note that for the purposes of this review all images came directly from and are the property of Brookes Publishing Co (clicking on each of the below images will take you directly to their source).

TILLS-subtest-1-vocabulary-awareness1. Vocabulary Awareness (VA) (description above) requires students to display considerable linguistic and cognitive flexibility in order to earn an average score.    It works great in teasing out students with weak vocabulary knowledge and use,   as well as students who are unable to  quickly and effectively analyze  words  for deeper meaning and come up with effective definitions of all possible word associations. Be mindful of the fact that  even though the words are presented to the students in written format in the stimulus book, the examiner is still expected to read  all the words to the students. Consequently,  students with good vocabulary knowledge  and strong oral language abilities  can still pass this subtest  despite the presence of significant reading weaknesses. Recommendation:  I suggest informally  checking the student’s  word reading abilities  by asking them to read of all the words, before reading all the word choices to them.   This way  you can informally document any word misreadings  made by the student even in the presence of an average subtest score.

TIILLS-subtest-2-phonemic-awareness

2. The Phonemic Awareness (PA) subtest (description above) requires students to  isolate and delete initial sounds in words of increasing complexity.  While this subtest does not require sound isolation and deletion in various word positions, similar to tests such as the CTOPP-2: Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing–Second Edition  or the The Phonological Awareness Test 2 (PAT 2)  it is still a highly useful and reliable measure of  phonemic awareness (as one of many precursors to reading fluency success).  This is especially because after the initial directions are given, the student is expected to remember to isolate the initial sounds in words without any prompting from the examiner.  Thus,  this task also  indirectly tests the students’ executive function abilities in addition to their phonemic awareness skills.

TILLS-subtest-3-story-retelling

3. The Story Retelling (SR) subtest (description above) requires students to do just that retell a story. Be mindful of the fact that the presented stories have reduced complexity. Thus, unless the students possess  significant retelling deficits, the above subtest  may not capture their true retelling abilities. Recommendation:  Consider supplementing this subtest  with informal narrative measures. For younger children (kindergarten and first grade) I recommend using wordless picture books to perform a dynamic assessment of their retelling abilities following a clinician’s narrative model (e.g., HERE).  For early elementary aged children (grades 2 and up), I recommend using picture books, which are first read to and then retold by the students with the benefit of pictorial but not written support. Finally, for upper elementary aged children (grades 4 and up), it may be helpful for the students to retell a book or a movie seen recently (or liked significantly) by them without the benefit of visual support all together (e.g., HERE).

TILLS-subtest-4-nonword-repetition

4. The Nonword Repetition (NR) subtest (description above) requires students to repeat nonsense words of increasing length and complexity. Weaknesses in the area of nonword repetition have consistently been associated with language impairments and learning disabilities due to the task’s heavy reliance on phonological segmentation as well as phonological and lexical knowledge (Leclercq, Maillart, Majerus, 2013). Thus, both monolingual and simultaneously bilingual children with language and literacy impairments will be observed to present with patterns of segment substitutions (subtle substitutions of sounds and syllables in presented nonsense words) as well as segment deletions of nonword sequences more than 2-3 or 3-4 syllables in length (depending on the child’s age).

TILLS-subtest-5-nonword-spelling

5. The Nonword Spelling (NS) subtest (description above) requires the students to spell nonwords from the Nonword Repetition (NR) subtest. Consequently, the Nonword Repetition (NR) subtest needs to be administered prior to the administration of this subtest in the same assessment session.  In contrast to the real-word spelling tasks,  students cannot memorize the spelling  of the presented words,  which are still bound by  orthographic and phonotactic constraints of the English language.   While this is a highly useful subtest,  is important to note that simultaneously bilingual children may present with decreased scores due to vowel errors.   Consequently,  it is important to analyze subtest results in order to determine whether dialectal differences rather than a presence of an actual disorder is responsible for the error patterns.

TILLS-subtest-6-listening-comprehension

6. The  Listening Comprehension (LC) subtest (description above) requires the students to listen to short stories  and then definitively answer story questions via available answer choices, which include: “Yes”, “No’, and “Maybe”. This subtest also indirectly measures the students’ metalinguistic awareness skills as they are needed to detect when the text does not provide sufficient information to answer a particular question definitively (e.g., “Maybe” response may be called for).  Be mindful of the fact that because the students are not expected to provide sentential responses  to questions it may be important to supplement subtest administration with another listening comprehension assessment. Tests such as the Listening Comprehension Test-2 (LCT-2), the Listening Comprehension Test-Adolescent (LCT-A),  or the Executive Function Test-Elementary (EFT-E)  may be useful  if  language processing and listening comprehension deficits are suspected or reported by parents or teachers. This is particularly important  to do with students who may be ‘good guessers’ but who are also reported to present with word-finding difficulties at sentence and discourse levels. 

TILLS-subtest-7-reading-comprehension

7. The Reading Comprehension (RC) subtest (description above) requires the students to  read short story and answer story questions in “Yes”, “No’, and “Maybe”  format.   This subtest is not stand alone and must be administered immediately following the administration the Listening Comprehension subtest. The student is asked to read the first story out loud in order to determine whether s/he can proceed with taking this subtest or discontinue due to being an emergent reader. The criterion for administration of the subtest is making 7 errors during the reading of the first story and its accompanying questions. Unfortunately,  in my clinical experience this subtest  is not always accurate at identifying children with reading-based deficits.

While I find it terrific for students with severe-profound reading deficits and/or below average IQ, a number of my students with average IQ and moderately impaired reading skills managed to pass it via a combination of guessing and luck despite being observed to misread aloud between 40-60% of the presented words. Be mindful of the fact that typically  such students may have up to 5-6  errors during the reading of the first story. Thus, according to administration guidelines these students will be allowed to proceed and take this subtest.  They will then continue to make text misreadings  during each story presentation (you will know that by asking them to read each story aloud vs. silently).   However,  because the response mode is in definitive (“Yes”, “No’, and “Maybe”) vs. open ended question format,  a number of these students  will earn average scores by being successful guessers. Recommendation:  I highly recommend supplementing the administration of this subtest with grade level (or below grade level) texts (see HERE and/or HERE),  to assess the student’s reading comprehension informally.

I present a full  one page text to the students and ask them to read it to me in its entirety.   I audio/video record  the student’s reading for further analysis (see Reading Fluency section below).   After the  completion of the story I ask  the student questions with a focus on main idea comprehension and vocabulary definitions.   I also ask questions pertaining to story details.   Depending on the student’s age  I may ask them  abstract/ factual text questions with and without text access.  Overall, I find that informal administration of grade level (or even below grade-level) texts coupled with the administration of standardized reading tests provides me with a significantly better understanding of the student’s reading comprehension abilities rather than administration of standardized reading tests alone.

TILLS-subtest-8-following-directions

8. The Following Directions (FD) subtest (description above) measures the student’s ability to execute directions of increasing length and complexity.  It measures the student’s short-term, immediate and working memory, as well as their language comprehension.  What is interesting about the administration of this subtest is that the graphic symbols (e.g., objects, shapes, letter and numbers etc.) the student is asked to modify remain covered as the instructions are given (to prevent visual rehearsal). After being presented with the oral instruction the students are expected to move the card covering the stimuli and then to executive the visual-spatial, directional, sequential, and logical if–then the instructions  by marking them on the response form.  The fact that the visual stimuli remains covered until the last moment increases the demands on the student’s memory and comprehension.  The subtest was created to simulate teacher’s use of procedural language (giving directions) in classroom setting (as per developers).

TILLS-subtest-9-delayed-story-retelling

9. The Delayed Story Retelling (DSR) subtest (description above) needs to be administered to the students during the same session as the Story Retelling (SR) subtest, approximately 20 minutes after the SR subtest administration.  Despite the relatively short passage of time between both subtests, it is considered to be a measure of long-term memory as related to narrative retelling of reduced complexity. Here, the examiner can compare student’s performance to determine whether the student did better or worse on either of these measures (e.g., recalled more information after a period of time passed vs. immediately after being read the story).  However, as mentioned previously, some students may recall this previously presented story fairly accurately and as a result may obtain an average score despite a history of teacher/parent reported  long-term memory limitations.  Consequently, it may be important for the examiner to supplement the administration of this subtest with a recall of a movie/book recently seen/read by the student (a few days ago) in order to compare both performances and note any weaknesses/limitations.

TILLS-subtest-10-nonword-reading

10. The Nonword Reading (NR) subtest (description above) requires students to decode nonsense words of increasing length and complexity. What I love about this subtest is that the students are unable to effectively guess words (as many tend to routinely do when presented with real words). Consequently, the presentation of this subtest will tease out which students have good letter/sound correspondence abilities as well as solid orthographic, morphological and phonological awareness skills and which ones only memorized sight words and are now having difficulty decoding unfamiliar words as a result.      TILLS-subtest-11-reading-fluency

11. The Reading Fluency (RF) subtest (description above) requires students to efficiently read facts which make up simple stories fluently and correctly.  Here are the key to attaining an average score is accuracy and automaticity.  In contrast to the previous subtest, the words are now presented in meaningful simple syntactic contexts.

It is important to note that the Reading Fluency subtest of the TILLS has a negatively skewed distribution. As per authors, “a large number of typically developing students do extremely well on this subtest and a much smaller number of students do quite poorly.”

Thus, “the mean is to the left of the mode” (see publisher’s image below). This is why a student could earn an average standard score (near the mean) and a low percentile rank when true percentiles are used rather than NCE percentiles (Normal Curve Equivalent). Tills Q&A – Negative Skew

Consequently under certain conditions (See HERE) the percentile rank (vs. the NCE percentile) will be a more accurate representation of the student’s ability on this subtest.

Indeed, due to the reduced complexity of the presented words some students (especially younger elementary aged) may obtain average scores and still present with serious reading fluency deficits.  

I frequently see that in students with average IQ and go to long-term memory, who by second and third grades have managed to memorize an admirable number of sight words due to which their deficits in the areas of reading appeared to be minimized.  Recommendation: If you suspect that your student belongs to the above category I highly recommend supplementing this subtest with an informal measure of reading fluency.  This can be done by presenting to the student a grade level text (I find science and social studies texts particularly useful for this purpose) and asking them to read several paragraphs from it (see HERE and/or HERE).

As the students are reading  I calculate their reading fluency by counting the number of words they read per minute.  I find it very useful as it allows me to better understand their reading profile (e.g, fast/inaccurate reader, slow/inaccurate reader, slow accurate reader, fast/accurate reader).   As the student is reading I note their pauses, misreadings, word-attack skills and the like. Then, I write a summary comparing the students reading fluency on both standardized and informal assessment measures in order to document students strengths and limitations.

TILLS-subtest-12-written-expression

12. The Written Expression (WE) subtest (description above) needs to be administered to the students immediately after the administration of the Reading Fluency (RF) subtest because the student is expected to integrate a series of facts presented in the RF subtest into their writing sample. There are 4 stories in total for the 4 different age groups.

The examiner needs to show the student a different story which integrates simple facts into a coherent narrative. After the examiner reads that simple story to the students s/he is expected to tell the students that the story is  okay, but “sounds kind of “choppy.” They then need to show the student an example of how they could put the facts together in a way that sounds more interesting and less choppy  by combining sentences (see below). Finally, the examiner will ask the students to rewrite the story presented to them in a similar manner (e.g, “less choppy and more interesting.”)

tills

After the student finishes his/her story, the examiner will analyze it and generate the following scores: a discourse score, a sentence score, and a word score. Detailed instructions as well as the Examiner’s Practice Workbook are provided to assist with scoring as it takes a bit of training as well as trial and error to complete it, especially if the examiners are not familiar with certain procedures (e.g., calculating T-units).

Full disclosure: Because the above subtest is still essentially sentence combining, I have only used this subtest a handful of times with my students. Typically when I’ve used it in the past, most of my students fell in two categories: those who failed it completely by either copying text word  for word, failing to generate any written output etc. or those who passed it with flying colors but still presented with notable written output deficits. Consequently, I’ve replaced Written Expression subtest administration with the administration of written standardized tests, which I supplement with an informal grade level expository, persuasive, or narrative writing samples.

Having said that many clinicians may not have the access to other standardized written assessments, or lack the time to administer entire standardized written measures (which may frequently take between 60 to 90 minutes of administration time). Consequently, in the absence of other standardized writing assessments, this subtest can be effectively used to gauge the student’s basic writing abilities, and if needed effectively supplemented by informal writing measures (mentioned above).

TILLS-subtest-13-social-communication

13. The Social Communication (SC) subtest (description above) assesses the students’ ability to understand vocabulary associated with communicative intentions in social situations. It requires students to comprehend how people with certain characteristics might respond in social situations by formulating responses which fit the social contexts of those situations. Essentially students become actors who need to act out particular scenes while viewing select words presented to them.

Full disclosure: Similar to my infrequent administration of the Written Expression subtest, I have also administered this subtest very infrequently to students.  Here is why.

I am an SLP who works full-time in a psychiatric hospital with children diagnosed with significant psychiatric impairments and concomitant language and literacy deficits.  As a result, a significant portion of my job involves comprehensive social communication assessments to catalog my students’ significant deficits in this area. Yet, past administration of this subtest showed me that number of my students can pass this subtest quite easily despite presenting with notable and easily evidenced social communication deficits. Consequently, I prefer the administration of comprehensive social communication testing when working with children in my hospital based program or in my private practice, where I perform independent comprehensive evaluations of language and literacy (IEEs).

Again, as I’ve previously mentioned many clinicians may not have the access to other standardized social communication assessments, or lack the time to administer entire standardized written measures. Consequently, in the absence of other social communication assessments, this subtest can be used to get a baseline of the student’s basic social communication abilities, and then be supplemented with informal social communication measures such as the Informal Social Thinking Dynamic Assessment Protocol (ISTDAP) or observational social pragmatic checklists

TILLS-subtest-14-digit-span-forward

14.  The Digit Span Forward (DSF) subtest (description above) is a relatively isolated  measure  of short term and verbal working memory ( it minimizes demands on other aspects of language such as syntax or vocabulary).

TILLS-subtest-15-digit-span-backward

15.  The Digit Span Backward (DSB) subtest (description above) assesses the student’s working memory and requires the student to mentally manipulate the presented stimuli in reverse order. It allows examiner to observe the strategies (e.g. verbal rehearsal, visual imagery, etc.) the students are using to aid themselves in the process.  Please note that the Digit Span Forward subtest must be administered immediately before the administration of this subtest.

SLPs who have used tests such as the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals – 5 (CELF-5) or the Test of Auditory Processing Skills – Third Edition (TAPS-3) should be highly familiar with both subtests as they are fairly standard measures of certain aspects of memory across the board.

To continue, in addition to the presence of subtests which assess the students literacy abilities, the TILLS also possesses a number of interesting features.

For starters, the TILLS Easy Score, which allows the examiners to use their scoring online. It is incredibly easy and effective. After clicking on the link and filling out the preliminary demographic information, all the examiner needs to do is to plug in this subtest raw scores, the system does the rest. After the raw scores are plugged in, the system will generate a PDF document with all the data which includes (but is not limited to) standard scores, percentile ranks, as well as a variety of composite and core scores. The examiner can then save the PDF on their device (laptop, PC, tablet etc.) for further analysis.

The there is the quadrant model. According to the TILLS sampler (HERE)  “it allows the examiners to assess and compare students’ language-literacy skills at the sound/word level and the sentence/ discourse level across the four oral and written modalities—listening, speaking, reading, and writing” and then create “meaningful profiles of oral and written language skills that will help you understand the strengths and needs of individual students and communicate about them in a meaningful way with teachers, parents, and students. (pg. 21)”

tills quadrant model

Then there is the Student Language Scale (SLS) which is a one page checklist parents,  teachers (and even students) can fill out to informally identify language and literacy based strengths and weaknesses. It  allows for meaningful input from multiple sources regarding the students performance (as per IDEA 2004) and can be used not just with TILLS but with other tests or in even isolation (as per developers).

Furthermore according to the developers, because the normative sample included several special needs populations, the TILLS can be used with students diagnosed with ASD,  deaf or hard of hearing (see caveat), as well as intellectual disabilities (as long as they are functioning age 6 and above developmentally).

According to the developers the TILLS is aligned with Common Core Standards and can be administered as frequently as two times a year for progress monitoring (min of 6 mos post 1st administration).

With respect to bilingualism examiners can use it with caution with simultaneous English learners but not with sequential English learners (see further explanations HERE).   Translations of TILLS are definitely not allowed as they will undermine test validity and reliability.

So there you have it these are just some of my very few impressions regarding this test.  Now to some of you may notice that I spend a significant amount of time pointing out some of the tests limitations. However, it is very important to note that we have research that indicates that there is no such thing as a “perfect standardized test” (see HERE for more information).   All standardized tests have their limitations

Having said that, I think that TILLS is a PHENOMENAL addition to the standardized testing market, as it TRULY appears to assess not just language but also literacy abilities of the students on our caseloads.

That’s all from me; however, before signing off I’d like to provide you with more resources and information, which can be reviewed in reference to TILLS.  For starters, take a look at Brookes Publishing TILLS resources.  These include (but are not limited to) TILLS FAQ, TILLS Easy-Score, TILLS Correction Document, as well as 3 FREE TILLS Webinars.   There’s also a Facebook Page dedicated exclusively to TILLS updates (HERE).

But that’s not all. Dr. Nelson and her colleagues have been tirelessly lecturing about the TILLS for a number of years, and many of their past lectures and presentations are available on the ASHA website as well as on the web (e.g., HERE, HERE, HERE, etc). Take a look at them as they contain far more in-depth information regarding the development and implementation of this groundbreaking assessment.

To access TILLS fully-editable template, click HERE

Disclaimer:  I did not receive a complimentary copy of this assessment for review nor have I received any encouragement or compensation from either Brookes Publishing  or any of the TILLS developers to write it.  All images of this test are direct property of Brookes Publishing (when clicked on all the images direct the user to the Brookes Publishing website) and were used in this post for illustrative purposes only.

References: 

Leclercq A, Maillart C, Majerus S. (2013) Nonword repetition problems in children with SLI: A deficit in accessing long-term linguistic representations? Topics in Language Disorders. 33 (3) 238-254.

Related Posts:

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If It’s NOT CAPD Then Where do SLPs Go From There?

Image result for processingIn July 2015 I wrote a blog post entitled: “Why (C) APD Diagnosis is NOT Valid!” citing the latest research literature to explain that the controversial diagnosis of (C)APD tends to

a) detract from understanding that the child presents with legitimate language based deficits in the areas of comprehension, expression, social communication and literacy development

b) may result in the above deficits not getting adequately addressed due to the provision of controversial APD treatments

To CLARIFY, I was NOT trying to disprove that the processing deficits exhibited by the children diagnosed with “(C)APD” were not REAL. Rather I was trying to point out that these processing deficits are of neurolinguistic origin and as such need to be addressed from a linguistic rather than ‘auditory’ standpoint.

In other words, if one carefully analyzes the child’s so-called processing issues, one will quickly realize that those issues are not related to the processing of auditory input  (auditory domain) since the child is not processing tones, hoots, or clicks, etc. but rather has difficulty processing speech and language (linguistic domain).

Let us review two major APD Models: The Buffalo Model (Katz) and the Bellis/Ferre Model, to support the above stance.

iStock_000009897175XSmall-1-300x300

The Buffalo Model by Jack Katz, PhD contains 4 major categories:

1. The Decoding Category – refers to the ability to quickly and accurately process speech, most importantly at the phonemic level (Since this involves speech sounds then this has nothing to do with the processing of auditory stimuli. In other words deficits in this area are of linguistic nature and the highly correlated with reading deficits characterized by weak/deficient phonemic awareness abilities/poor emergent reading abilities).

Here are a few examples of so-called “decoding” deficits:

  • Difficulty with processing what is heard accurately and quickly; tends to respond more slowly (indicative of weak language abilities)
  • Problems keeping up with the flow of communication and running discourse (indicative of weak language abilities)
  • Problems processing at a phonemic level (e.g, can’t blend ‘t,’ ‘u’ and ‘b’ together to make the word ‘tub’) (indicative of phonemic awareness deficits)
  • Trouble reading and spelling (reading and writing deficits rather then APD)
  • Receptive language problems and impairments in discrimination, closure abilities and temporal resolution (this one just explains itself)

2. Tolerance-Fading Memory (TFM) Category – refers to two skills that are often found together: “tolerance” – understanding speech in noise (processing of language) and “fading memory” – auditory short-term or working memory (memory= higher level cognitive skills vs. a pure auditory entity).

Here are a few examples of given of tolerance-fading memory deficits:

  1. Difficulty blocking out background noise so child’s performance suffers in a noisy classroom environment, may be labeled as distractible (clearly describes the child with poor language comprehension)
  2. Linked to poor reading comprehension, oral and written expression, poor short-term memory (in other words describes a learning disability)

3. Integration category 

  • difficulty bringing in information from different modalities, such as receiving auditory and visual information at the same time; these children are often labeled as learning disabled or even dyslexic (this one just explains itself)
  • They may be poor readers, have trouble with spelling, and exhibit difficulty with multimodal tasks (clearly indicative of reading and writing deficits or students which will often get classified in the schools with specific learning disability)

4. Organization –disorganized thinking; sequencing errors (This appears to be indicative of the social communication / executive function deficits, as well as word-retrieval deficits)

Another major APD model is the Bellis/Ferre Model, which divides the above four categories into the following subtypes:

  • Primary subtype
  1. Auditory decoding – listening difficulties in noisy environments
  2. Integration deficit – problems with tasks requiring both cerebral hemispheres to cooperate
  3. Prosodic deficits- difficulty understanding the intent of verbal messages
  • Secondary
  1. Associative deficits- receptive language disorder
  2. Output organization deficits- attention and/or executive function disorder- might also be caused by an auditory efferent dysfunction

Similar to the Buffalo model, the Bellis/Ferre Model, describes deficits of linguistic versus auditory nature many of which are characteristic of a learning disability.

testing

Consequently, if an SLP is referred a student with confirmed or suspected (C)APD, the first thing they should do is to administer a comprehensive battery of testing to determine the scope of the student’s linguistic deficits. To test general language abilities, consider using the Test of Integrated Language & Literacy Skills (TILLS) (Review HERE). But SLPs shouldn’t just stop there! They need to dig deeper to make sure that the following major areas of language are assessed:

The above list doesn’t even reference assessment of Reading, Writing, and Spelling, all areas which play a crucial role in academic language as any deficits displayed in those areas may also present as CAPD symptoms.  If literacy testing is not performed, it is still important for SLPs to review and seriously consider the results of learning evaluations in order to see the whole child and not just their limited functioning in select areas of oral language comprehension, expression, and use.

It is very important for SLPs to understand that without a comprehensive language and literacy assessment of deficit areas it is very difficult to adequately address the student’s linguistically-based deficits! Thus, if testing shortcuts are taken then the referral of students diagnosed with the (C)APD will not cease, and SLPs will continue to be in the dark regarding which goals should be addressed with these students in therapy.

Related Posts:

 

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Why Are My Child’s Test Scores Dropping?

“I just don’t understand,” says a parent bewilderingly, “she’s receiving so many different therapies and tutoring every week, but her scores on educational, speech-language, and psychological testing just keep dropping!”

I hear a variation of this comment far too frequently in both my private practice as well as outpatient school in hospital setting, from parents looking for an explanation regarding the decline of their children’s standardized test scores in both cognitive (IQ) and linguistic domains. That is why today I wanted to take a moment to write this blog post to explain a few reasons behind this phenomenon.

Children with language impairments represent a highly diverse group, which exists along a continuum.   Some children’s deficits may be mild while others far more severe. Some children may receive very little intervention  services and thrive academically, while others can receive inordinate amount of interventions and still very limitedly benefit from them.  To put it in very simplistic terms, the above is due to two significant influences – the interaction between the child’s (1) genetic makeup and (2) environmental factors.

There is a reason why language disorders are considered developmental.   Firstly, these difficulties are apparent from a young age when the child’s language just begins to develop.  Secondly, the trajectory of the child’s language deficits also develops along with the child and can progress/lag based on the child’s genetic predisposition, resiliency, parental input, as well as schooling and academically based interventions.

Let us discuss some of the reasons why standardized testing results may decline for select students who are receiving a variety of support services and interventions.


Ineffective Interventions due to Misdiagnosis 

Sometimes, lack of appropriate/relevant intervention provision may be responsible for it.  Let’s take an example of a misdiagnosis of alcohol related deficits as Autism, which I have frequently encountered in my private practice, when performing second opinion testing and consultations. Unfortunately, the above is not uncommon.  Many children with alcohol-related impairments may present with significant social emotional dysregulation coupled with significant externalizing behavior manifestations.  As a result, without a thorough differential diagnosis they may be frequently diagnosed with ASD and then provided with ABA therapy services for years with little to no benefit.

Ineffective Interventions due to Lack of Comprehensive Testing 

Let us examine another example of a student with average intelligence but poor reading performance.  The student may do well in school up to certain grade but then may begin to flounder academically.  Because only the student’s reading abilities ‘seem’ to be adversely impacted, no comprehensive language and literacy evaluations are performed.   The student may receive undifferentiated extra reading support in school while his scores may continue to drop.

Once the situation ‘gets bad enough’, the student’s language and literacy abilities may be comprehensively assessed.  In a vast majority of situations these type of assessments yield the following results:

  1. The student’s oral language expression as well as higher order language abilities are adversely affected and require targeted language intervention
  2. The undifferentiated reading intervention provided to the student was NOT targeting actual areas of weaknesses

As can be seen from above examples, targeted intervention is hugely important and, in a number of cases, may be responsible  for the student’s declining performance. However, that is not always the case.

What if it was definitively confirmed that the student was indeed diagnosed appropriately and was receiving quality services but still continued to decline academically. What then?

Well, we know that many children with genetic disorders (Down Syndrome, Fragile X, etc.) as well as intellectual disabilities (ID) can make incredibly impressive gains in a variety of developmental areas (e.g., gross/fine motor skills, speech/language, socio-emotional, ADL, etc.)  but their gains will not be on par with peers without these diagnoses.

The situation becomes much more complicated when children without ID (or with mild intellectual deficits) and varying degrees of language impairment, receive effective therapies, work very hard in therapy, yet continue  to be perpetually behind their peers when it comes to making academic gains.  This occurs because of a phenomenon known as Cumulative Cognitive Deficit (CCD).

The Effect of Cumulative Cognitive Deficit (CCD) on Academic Performance 

According to Gindis (2005) CCD “refers to a downward trend in the measured intelligence and/or scholastic achievement of culturally/socially disadvantaged children relative to age-appropriate societal norms and expectations” (p. 304). Gindis further elucidates by quoting Satler (1992): “The theory behind cumulative deficit is that children who are deprived of enriching cognitive experiences during their early years are less able to profit from environmental situations because of a mismatch between their cognitive schemata and the requirements of the new (or advanced) learning situation”  (pp. 575-576).

So who are the children potentially at risk for CCD?

One such group are internationally (and domestically) adopted as well as foster care children.  A number of studies show that due to the early life hardships associated with prenatal trauma (e.g., maternal substance abuse, lack of adequate prenatal care, etc.) as well as postnatal stress (e.g., adverse effect of institutionalization), many of these children have much poorer social and academic outcomes despite being adopted by well-to-do, educated parents who continue to provide them with exceptional care in all aspects of their academic and social development.

Another group, are children with diagnosed/suspected psychiatric impairments and concomitant overt/hidden language deficits. Depending on the degree and persistence of the psychiatric impairment, in addition to having intermittent access to classroom academics and therapy interventions, the quality of their therapy may be affected by the course of their illness. Combined with sporadic nature of interventions this may result in them falling further and further behind their peers with respect to social and academic outcomes.

A third group (as mentioned previously) are children with genetic syndromes, neurodevelopmental disorders (e.g., Autism) and intellectual disabilities. Here, it is very important to explicitly state that children with diagnosed or suspected alcohol related deficits (FASD) are particularly at risk due to the lack of consensus/training  regarding FAS detection/diagnosis. Consequently, these children may evidence a steady ‘decline’ on standardized testing despite exhibiting steady functional gains in therapy.

Brief Standardized Testing Score Tutorial:

When we look at norm-referenced testing results, score interpretation can be quite daunting. For the sake of simplicity,  I’d like to restrict this discussion to two types of scores: raw scores and standard scores.

The raw score is the number of items the child answered correctly on a test or a subtest. However, raw scores need to be interpreted to be meaningful.  For example, a 9 year old student can attain a raw score of 12 on a subtest of a particular test (e.g., Listening Comprehension Test-2 or LCT-2).  Without more information, the raw score has no meaning. If the test consisted of 15 questions, a raw score of 12 would be an average score. Alternatively, if the subtest had 36 questions, a raw score of 12 would be significantly below-average (e.g., Test of Problem Solving-3 or TOPS-3).

Consequently, the raw score needs to be converted to a standard score. Standard scores compare the student’s performance on a test to the performance of other students his/her age.  Many standardized language assessments have a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15. Thus, scores between 85 and 115 are considered to be in the average range of functioning.

Now lets discuss testing performance variation across time. Let’s say an 8.6 year old student took the above mentioned LCT-2 and attained poor standard scores on all subtests.   That student qualifies for services and receives them for a period of one year. At that time the LCT-2 is re-administered once again and much to the parents surprise the student’s standard scores appear to be even lower than when he had taken the test as an eight year old (illustration below).

Results of The Listening Comprehension Test -2 (LCT-2): Age: 8:4

Subtests Raw Score Standard Score Percentile Rank Description
Main Idea 5 67 2 Severely Impaired
Details 2 63 1 Severely Impaired
Reasoning 2 69 2 Severely Impaired
Vocabulary 0 Below Norms Below Norms Profoundly Impaired
Understanding Messages 0 <61 <1 Profoundly Impaired
Total Test Score 9 <63 1 Profoundly Impaired

(Mean = 100, Standard Deviation = +/-15)

Results of The Listening Comprehension Test -2 (LCT-2):  Age: 9.6

Subtests Raw Score Standard Score Percentile Rank Description
Main Idea 6 60 0 Severely Impaired
Details 5 66 1 Severely Impaired
Reasoning 3 62 1 Severely Impaired
Vocabulary 4 74 4 Moderately Impaired
Understanding Messages 2 54 0 Profoundly Impaired
Total Test Score 20 <64 1 Profoundly Impaired

(Mean = 100, Standard Deviation = +/-15)

However, if one looks at the raw score column on the far left, one can see that the student as a 9 year old actually answered more questions than as an 8 year old and his total raw test score went up by 11 points.

The above is a perfect illustration of CCD in action. The student was able to answer more questions on the test but because academic, linguistic, and cognitive demands continue to steadily increase with age, this quantitative improvement in performance (increase in total number of questions answered) did not result in qualitative  improvement in performance (increase in standard scores).

In the first part of this series I have introduced the concept of Cumulative Cognitive Deficit and its effect on academic performance. Stay tuned for part II of this series which describes what parents and professionals can do to improve functional performance of students with Cumulative Cognitive Deficit.

References:

  • Bowers, L., Huisingh, R., & LoGiudice, C. (2006). The Listening Comprehension Test-2 (LCT-2). East Moline, IL: LinguiSystems, Inc.
  • Bowers, L., Huisingh, R., & LoGiudice, C. (2005). The Test of Problem Solving 3-Elementary (TOPS-3). East Moline, IL: LinguiSystems.
  • Gindis, B. (2005). Cognitive, language, and educational issues of children adopted from overseas orphanages. Journal of Cognitive Education and Psychology, 4 (3): 290-315.
  • Sattler, J. M. (1992). Assessment of Children. Revised and updated 3rd edition. San Diego: Jerome M. Sattler.
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What do Auditory Memory Deficits Indicate in the Presence of Average General Language Scores?

I frequently see a variation of the following question on a variety of speech language forums: “My student scored within the average range on all the tested subtests with the exception of working memory and sentence recall. What other testing do you recommend to determine whether these difficulties are impacting their academics?”

First, lets provide a definition of working memory (WM). WM is the memory used for temporarily storing and manipulating information so we can perform a particular task. It’s one of the executive functions (EFs) and contains two important subcomponents: a phonological loop that stores verbal information and a visuo-spatial ‘sketchpad’ which stores visual and spatial information (Baddeley & Hitch, 2007). Together they are responsible for acquisition of sound-letter correspondence, phonemic awareness and ultimately reading comprehension since WM influences the duration the information stays in memory as well as its eventual transfer (or lack of thereof) to long-term memory.

In other words, students with adequate working memory will have enough capacity to appropriately decode, fluently read and adequately comprehend text while students with poor working memory will expend all their capacity on basic tasks such as decoding, which leaves them with very little capacity to devote to comprehension of read material.

Outside of testing, WM deficits typically become glaringly apparent as students move up grade levels and are given challenging subject-specific abstract texts, requiring in-depth analysis.  This is when parents and professionals start to see that in addition to experiencing difficulty comprehending the read texts, students with poor WM also tire easily when presented with lengthy texts, and tend to evidence increased frustration and decreased self-efficacy during reading tasks.

Now let’s get back to our original question: “What other testing do you recommend to determine whether these [memory] difficulties are impacting their academics?”

Typically when asked that question I always tend to recommend that the therapist (an SLP trained in reading disorders) or a related special educational professional (e.g., learning specialist) preform a series of tests aimed to determine whether the student presents with reading deficits.

In my clinical experience (which is of course substantiated by research) in 99% of cases, reading disabilities are the hidden culprit behind seemingly average oral language skills and working memory deficits.   For more information on what testing is recommended to tease out the presence of reading disorders, see my series posts on Comprehensive Dyslexia Testing (HERE) as well as on the validity of (C)APD diagnosis (HERE).

keep calm and don't ignore the signs

So the next time you encounter this perplexing pattern of strengths and weaknesses don’t just ignore it as inconsequential and not recommend or dismiss the student from language services.  Delve into it further! You will often find that it is representative of reading difficulties, the cumulative impact of which may significantly affect the student’s academic performance and ultimately school outcomes, unless appropriate therapeutic interventions are provided.

References:

  • Baddeley, A. D., & Hitch, G. J. (2007). Working memory: Past, present…and future? In N.Osaka, R. Logie & M. D’Esposito (Eds), Working Memory – Behavioural & Neural Correlates. Oxford University Press.
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Why (C) APD Diagnosis is NOT Valid!

Today’s post will make a number of people quite angry and is intended to be controversial!  Why? Because controversy promotes critical thinking, broadens perspectives, allows to acquire better knowledge of the construct in question as well as ultimately guides better decision making on the part of the parties in question. So why the lengthy disclaimer? Because today via the use of the latest research publications, I would like discuss the fact that the diagnosis of Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) or what some may know as Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD) is NOT valid!

Here are just a few reasons why:

  1. There is a strong desire for the (C)APD label on the part of those encountering processing difficulties, yet once the label is given no direct/specific auditory interventions are provided by the audiologist. Subsequent to the diagnosis, confusion ensues regarding the type, frequency, and duration of service provision (typically performed by the SLP) as well as what those services should actually constitute 
  2. Recommendations for training deficits specific areas such as working memory, auditory discrimination, auditory sequencing, etc., do not functionally transfer into practice and fail to create generalization affect
  3. Recommendations for specific costly auditory training programs such Auditory Integration Training (AIT), The Listening Program (TLP), Fast ForWord® (FFW) at the exclusion of all others, without the provision of a detailed breakdown of the child’s deficit areas often cause an incursion of unnecessary expenses for parents and professionals and are found to be INEFFECTIVE or limitedly effective in the long run
  4. General audiological recommendations for accommodations (e.g., FM systems, etc.) are frequently unnecessary, and may actually exacerbate the isolation effect while in no way alleviating the student’s deficits, which require direct and targeted intervention
  5. Auditory deficits don’t cause speech, language, and academic learning difficulties
  6. Numerous non-linguistic based disorders can be misdiagnosed as (C)APD without differential diagnosis
  7. (C)APD testing is hugely influenced by non-auditory factors grounded in higher order cognitive and linguistic processes
  8. Presently there’s no no clear performance criteria to make the (C)APD diagnosis
  9. The diagnosis of (C)APD is appealing because it presents a more attractive explanation than the diagnoses of language and learning disabilities for children with processing deficits
  10. The diagnosis of (C)APD may often detract from identifying legitimate language based deficits in the areas of comprehension, expression, social communication and literacy development, as the result of which these areas will not get adequate therapeutic attention by relevant professionals

A few words on (C)APD popularity, well sort of:

(C)APD  is currently rampantly diagnosed in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, and is even beginning to be diagnosed in the United Kingdom (Dawes & Bishop, 2009). However, presently, (C)APD is not a mainstream diagnostic classifications in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) nor is part of an actual educational classification in United States.  Already many of you can see the beginnings of the controversy.  If this diagnoses is so popular and so prevalent why is that major psychological and educational governing bodies such as American Psychiatric Association and the US Department of Education still do not officially recognize it?

(C)APD symptomology:

A. Student presents with difficulty processing information efficiently

  • Requires increased processing time to respond to questions
  • Presents like s/he are ignoring the speaker
  • May request frequent repetition of presented information from speakers
  • Difficulty following long sentences
  • Difficulty keeping up with class discussions in group settings
  • Poor listening abilities under noisy conditions may be interpreted as “distractibility”

B. Student has difficulty maintaining attention on presented tasks

  • Frequent loss of focus
  • Difficulty completing assignments on their own

C. Student has poor short term memory – difficulty remembering instructions and directions or verbally presented information

D.Student has difficulty with phonemic awareness, reading and spelling

  • Poor ability to recognize and produce rhyming words
  • Poor segmentation abilities (separation of sentences, syllables and sounds)
  • Poor sound manipulation abilities (isolation, deletion, substitution, blending, etc)
  • Poor sound letter identification abilities
  • Poor vowel recognition abilities
  • Poor decoding
  • Poor comprehension
  • Spelling errors
  • Limited/disorganized writing

E. The combination of above factors may result in generalized deficits across the board, affecting the child’s social and academic performance:

  • Poor reading comprehension
  • Poor oral and written expression
  • Disorganized thinking (e.g., disjointed narrative production)
  • Sequencing errors (recalling/retelling information in order, following recipes, etc)
  • Poor message interpretation
  • Difficulty making inferences
  • Misinterpreting the meaning of abstract information

I do not know what you see when you read the above description but to me those are the classical signs of a language impairment which has turned into a learning disability masking under the ambiguous label of  (C)APD. 

That is exactly what Dawes & Bishop, stated in 2009, when they asserted that “a child who is regarded as having a specific learning disability by one group of experts may be given an APD diagnosis by another.” They concluded that: “APD, as currently diagnosed, is not a coherent category, but that rather than abandoning the construct, we need to develop improved methods for assessment and diagnosis, with a focus on interdisciplinary evaluation“.

Let us now deconstruct each of the above statements with the assistance of direct quotes from current research.

1. (C)APD – what is it good for? Child goes to an audiologist and receives an ambiguous battery of (C)APD  testing with unclear qualification criteria (more on that below). There are some abnormal findings, so the audiologist states that the child has (C)APD, recommends accommodations and modifications, services in the form of speech language therapy with a focus on auditory training (more below) and/or some form of program similar to Fast ForWord®, and doesn’t see the child again for some time (maybe even years).  Since the child is now being seen by an SLP, who by the way frequently has no idea what to do with that child based on the ambiguous audiological findings, what exactly did the diagnosis of (C) APD just accomplish?

2. Processing Skills Training – Say What? In 2011 Fey and colleagues  (many notable audiologists and speech language pathologists) conducted a systematic review of  25 journal articles on the efficacy of interventions for school-age children with auditory processing disorder (C)APD. Their review found no compelling evidence that auditory interventions provided any unique benefit to auditory, language, or academic outcomes for children with diagnoses of (C)APD or language disorder.

Presently there is no valid evidence that targeting specific processing skills such as auditory discrimination, auditory sequencing, phonological memory, working memory, or rapid serial naming actually improves children’s ‘auditory processing’, language or reading abilities (Fey et al., 2011).

To illustrate further, Melby-Lervåg & Hulme, 2013 performed a meta analysis  of 23 working memory training studies. They found no evidence that memory training was an effective intervention for children with ADHD or dyslexia as it did not lead to better performance outside of the tasks presented within the memory tests. They concluded: “In the light of such evidence, it seems very difficult to justify the use of working memory training programs in relation to the treatment of reading and language disorders.” Further adding: “Our findings also cast strong doubt on claims that working memory training is effective in improving cognitive ability and scholastic attainment.” (Melby-Lervåg, 2013, p. 282).

3. The trouble with prescriptive programs.  (C)APD assessments often yield recommendations for a number of specific costly prescriptive programs such as AIT, FFW, etc.. As humans we are “attracted to interventions that promise relatively rapid improvements in language and academic skills. Interventions that target processing abilities are appealing because they promise significant improvements in language and reading without having to directly target the specific knowledge and skills required to be a proficient speaker, listener, reader, and writer.” (Kamhi and Wallach, 2012)

These programs claim to improve the child’s processing abilities through music, phonics, hearing distortions, etc. When such recommendations are made parents and professionals are urged to carefully review evidence-based research supported information regarding these prescribed programs in order to determine their effectiveness. Presently, there’s no research to support the use of any of these programs with children presenting with processing difficulties. 

Let’s take a look at Fast ForWord®, which is a highly costly program frequently recommended for children with auditory processing deficits. It is designed to help children’s reading and spoken language by training their memory, attention, processing, and sequencing by training 3 to 5 days per week, for 8 to 12 weeks. However, systematic reviews found no sign of a reliable effect of Fast ForWord® on reading or on expressive or receptive spoken language. 

Now some of you may legitimately tell me: “How dare you? I’ve tried it with my child and seen great gains”. And that is terrific! However, it is important to note that ANY intervention is better than NO intervention! And there is currently no scientific proof out there that this program works better than other programs aimed directly at improving the children’s reading abilities and listening skills.  Furthermore, if the child needs assistance with reading rather than spending the money  on Fast ForWord® it would be far more effective to select a systematic Orton-Gillingham (OG) (or similar) reading based program to teach her/him reading!

4. The dreaded FM system! FM systems have become an almost automatic recommendation for children diagnosed with (C)APD but are they actually effective?

Here is what one notable audiologist had to say in the subject. An FM system brings the speaker’s voice via the mic to the listener via loudspeakers or earphones through an amplifier. Only personal systems appropriate for children with TRUE APD-based auditory distractibility problems (understanding speech in the presence of background noise)”.  However, when he did his testing he found that only ~25% of children with (C)APD had issues with hearing speech in noise, the other ~75% didn’t. 

Guess what… a recent meta-analysis showed? Lemos et, al, 2009 did a systematic literature review of articles recommending the use of FM systems for APD. They concluded that: “Strong scientific evidence supporting the use of personal FM systems for APD intervention was not found. Since such device is frequently recommended for the treatment of APD, it becomes essential to carry out studies with high scientific evidence that could safely guide clinical decision making on this subject.

5. (C)APD diagnosis does NOT Language Disorder Make. “There little evidence that auditory perceptual impairments (not referring to hearing deficits) are a significant risk factor for language and academic performance (e.g., Hazan, Messaoud-Galusi, Rosan, Nouwens, & Shakespeare, 2009; Watson & Kidd, 2009)” (Kamhi, 2011, p. 265).  

  • Watson et al., 2003 found that measures of auditory processing (NOT hearing) had no impact on children’s reading or language abilities in Grades 1 through 4.
  • Sharma, Purdy, and Kelly (2009)  found that having auditory processing difficulties did not increase the likelihood that a child would have a language or reading disorder.
  • Hazan et al., 2009; Ramus et al., 2006) found that despite poor phonological processing abilities, individuals with dyslexia perform within normal limits on measures of speech perception. 

(From Kamhi, 2011, p. 268)

6. Are you sure it’s (C)APD?

—Without a careful differential diagnosis, numerous non-linguistic based medical, psychiatric neurological, psychological, and cognitive conditions can be misdiagnosed as (C)APD including (but not limited):

  • —Respiratory Disorders
    • —Adenoid hypertrophy, asthma, allergic rhinitis
  • —Metabolic/Endocrine Disorders
    • —Diabetes  hypo/hyperthyroidism
  • —Hematological Disorders
    • —Anemia
  • —Immunological Disorders
    • —Acquired and congenital immune problems
  • —Cardiac Disorders
    • —Congenital and acquired heart disease, syncopy
  • —Digestive  Disorders
    • —Irritable bowel syndrome, GERD
  • —Neurological Disorders
    • —Traumatic Brain Injuries, Tumors, Encephalopathy
  • Genetic Disorders
    • —Fragile X Syndrome
  • —Toxin Exposure
    • —Lead, Mercury, Drug Exposure
  • —Infections and Infestations
    • —Yeast overgrowth , intestinal worms/parasites
  • —Sleep Disorders
    • Sleep Apnea
  • —Mental Health Disorders
    • —Trauma, Anxiety, mood disorders, adjustment disorders
  • ——Sensory Processing Disorders
    • —Vision, hearing, auditory, tactile
  • —Acquired Disorders
    • —FASD

7. (C)APD testing is NOT so PURE 

(C)APD testing does not simply consists of pure tone audiometry and is heavily comprised of higher order linguistic and cognitive tasks. Testing requires that the listeners attend to given directions, remember and label the presented auditory sequences, etc, in other words participate in tasks aimed to task their linguistic system and executive functions  (DeBonis, 2015)

So what does the research show?

  • Wallach (2011) has indicated that  (C) APD ‘symptomology’ “reflects broader underlying problems in language comprehension and metalinguistic awareness.
  • Dawes and Bishop (2009)  compared children with a CAPD to children diagnosed with dyslexia and found similar attention, reading, and language deficits in both groups.
  •  Kelly et al. (2009)  found that 76% of a sample of 68 children with suspected auditory processing disorder also had language impairment with 53% demonstrating decreased auditory attention and 59% demonstrated decreased auditory memory.
  • Ferguson et al. (2011)  concluded that “the current labels of CAPD and SLI [specific language impairment] may, for all practical purposes, be indistinguishable” (p. 225).

(From DeBonis, 2015 pgs. 126-127)

8. What to Test and How to do it – That IS the Question? 

“Despite lofty claims to the contrary, there is no clear consensus concerning the battery of tests that lead to a diagnosis of CAPD.”  (Burkard, 2009, p. vii) Presently, neither the American Academy of Audiology nor the American Speech Language Hearing Association have a clear criteria on what testing to administer, how many standard deviations the client has to be in order to qualify, as well as even who is a good candidate for (C)APD testing.  (DeBonis, 2015 pg. 125)

As such, presently children diagnosed with (C)APD are diagnosed purely in an arbitrary fashion rather than based on a specific widely accepted standard.  To illustrate W. J. Wilson and Arnott (2013) found that “in a sample of records of 150 school-aged children who had completed at least four CAPD tests, rates of diagnosis ranged from 7.3% to 96% depending on the criteria used” (DeBonis, 2015 pg. 125). Are you “processing” what I am saying? 

9. Looking for the “Right” Label 

As an SLP, I frequently hear the following statement from parents: “We were searching for what was wrong with our child for such a long time; we are so happy that we were finally able to identify that it’s (C)APD.

The above comment is certainly understandable.  After all (C)APD sounds manageable!  The appeal to it is that presumably if the child undergoes specific auditory interventions to improve deficit areas, s/he will get better and all the problems will go away.  In contrast, finding out that the child’s processing difficulties are the result of linguistic deficits in the areas of listening, speaking, reading, and writing can be incredibly overwhelming especially because what we know about the nature of language impairments and that is that more often than not they turn into lifelong learning disabilities.

Some parents and professionals may disagree.  They might point out that many children with (C)APD test just fine on generalized language testing and only present with isolated deficits in the areas of attention, memory, as well as phonological processing. Yet here is the problem! General language testing in the form of administration of tests such as the CELF-5 or the CASL does not complete language assessment make!

The same children who test ‘just fine’ on these assessments often test quite poorly on the measures of social communication, executive function, as well as reading.  In other words if the professionals dig deep enough they often find out that something which outwardly presents as (C)APD is part of much broader language related issues, which require relevant intervention services. This leads me to my final point below.

10. Missing the Big Picture

“The primacy given to auditory processing abilities has resulted at times in neglect of other cognitive factors” (Cowan et al. 2009, p. 192). Focusing on the diagnosis of (C)APD obscures REAL, language-based deficits in children in question. It forces SLPs to address erroneous therapeutic targets based on AuD recommendations. It makes us ignore the BIG Picture and  “Consider non-auditory reasons for listening and comprehension difficulties, such as limitations in working memory, language knowledge, conceptual abilities, attention, and motivation and consequently targeting language, literacy, and knowledge-based goals in therapy.” —(Kamhi &Wallach, 2012)

Conclusion:

So what will happen next? Well, I can tell you with certainty that the controversy will certainly not end here!  Presently, not only is that there is a fierce academic debate between speech language pathologist and audiologists but there is also a raging debate among audiologists themselves!  This controversy will continue for many years among some highly educated people.  And SLPs? Well, we will continue seeing numerous children diagnosed with (C)APD.  Except, I do hope something will change and that is our collective outlook on how we view ambiguously defined and assessed disorders such as (C)APD.

I sincerely hope that we do not blindly defer to other professions and reject current valid research regarding this controversial diagnosis without first spending some time reflecting and critically reviewing these findings in order to better assist us with making informed and educated decisions regarding our clients’ plan of care.

Click HERE to read the second part of this post, which describes how SLPs SHOULD assess and treat children diagnosed by audiologists with (C)APD

References:

  • Burkard, R. (2009). Foreword. In A. Cacace & D. McFarland (Eds.), Controversies in central auditory processing disorder (pp. vii-viii). San Diego, CA: Plural.
  • Cowan, J., Rosen, S., & Moore, D. (2009). Putting the auditory back into auditory processing disorder in children. In Cacace, A., & McFarland, D. (Eds.),Controversies in central auditory processing disorder(pp. 187–197). San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing.
  • Dawes, P., & Bishop, D. (2009). Auditiory processing disorder in relation to developmental disorders of language, communication and attention: A review and critique. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 44, 440–465.
  • DeBonis, D. A. (2015) It Is Time to Rethink Central Auditory Processing Disorder Protocols for School-Aged Children. American Journal of Audiology. v. 24, 124-136.
  • Ferguson, M. A., Hall, R. L., Moore, D. R., & Riley, A. (2011). Communication, listening, cognitive and speech perception skills in children with auditory processing disorder (APD) or specific language impairment (SLI). Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 54, 211–227.
  • Fey, M. E., Richard, G. J., Geffner, D., Kamhi, A. G., Medwetsky, L., Paul, D., Schooling, T. (2011). Auditory processing disorder and auditory/language interventions: An evidence-based systematic review. Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, 42, 246–264.
  • Hazan, V., Messaoud-Galusi, S., Rosen, S., Nouwens, S., Shakespeare, B. (2009). Speech perception abilities of adults with dyslexia: Is there any evidence for a true deficit?. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. 52 1510–1529
  • Kamhi, A. G. (2011). What speech-language pathologists need to know about auditory processing disorder. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 42, 265–272.
  • Kamhi, A & Wallach, G (2012) What Speech-Language Pathologists Need to Know about Auditory Processing Disorders. ASHA Convention Presentation. Atlanta, GA.
  • Kelly, A. S., Purdy, S. C., & Sharma, M. (2009). Comorbidity of auditory processing, language, and reading disorders. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 53, 706–722.
  • Lemos IC, Jacob RT, Gejao MG, et al. (2009) Frequency modulation (FM) system in auditory processing disorder: An evidence-based practice? Pró-Fono Produtos Especializados para Fonoaudiologia Ltda. 21(3):243-248.
  • Melby-Lervåg, M., & Hulme, C. (2013). Is working memory training effective? A meta-analytic review. Developmental Psychology, 49, 270–291.
  • Ramus, F., White, S., Frith, U. (2006). Weighing the evidence between competing theories of dyslexia.Developmental Science. 9 265–269
  • Sharma, M., Purdy, S. C., Kelly, A. S. (2009). Comorbidity of auditory processing, language, and reading disorders. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. 52 706–722
  • Wallach, G. P. (2011). Peeling the onion of auditory processing disorder: A language/curricular-based perspective. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 42, 273–285.
  • Watson, C., Kidd, G. (2009). Associations between auditory abilities, reading, and other language skills in children and adults. Cacace, A., McFarland, D.Controversies in central auditory processing disorder.  218–242 San Diego, CA Plural.
  • Wilson, W. J., & Arnott, W. (2013). Using different criteria to diagnose (central) auditory processing disorder: How big a difference does it make? Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 56, 63–70.
Posted on 12 Comments

Special Education Disputes and Comprehensive Language Testing: What Parents, Attorneys, and Advocates Need to Know

Image result for evaluationSeveral years after I started my private speech pathology practice, I began performing comprehensive independent speech and language evaluations (IEEs).

For those of you who may be hearing the term IEE for the first time, an Independent Educational Evaluation is “an evaluation conducted by a qualified examiner who is not employed by the public agency responsible for the education of the child in question.” 34 C.F.R. 300.503. IEE’s can evaluate a broad range of functioning outside of cognitive or academic performance and may include neurological, occupational, speech language, or any other type of evaluations  as long as they bear direct impact on the child’s educational performance.

Independent evaluations can be performed for a wide variety of reasons, including but not limited to:

  • To determine the student’s present level of functioning
  • To determine whether the student presents with hidden, previously undiscovered deficits (e.g., executive function, social communication, etc.)
  • To determine whether the student’s educational classification requires a change
  • To determine if the student requires additional, previously not provided, related services (e.g., language therapy, etc.) or an increase in related services
  • To determine whether a student might benefit from an application of a particular therapy technique or program (e.g, Orton-Gillingham)
  • To determine whether a student with a severe impairment (e.g., severe emotional and behavioral disturbances, genetic syndrome, significant intellectual disability, etc.) is a good candidate for an out of district specialized school

Why can’t similar assessments be performed in school settings?

There are several reasons for that.

Why are IEE’s Needed?

The answer to that is simple:  “To strengthen the role of parents in the educational decision-making process.” According to one Disability Rights site: “Many disagreements between parents and school staff concerning IEP services and placement involve, at some stage, the interpretation of evaluation findings and recommendations. When disagreements occur, the Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) is one option lawmakers make available to parents, to help answer questions about appropriate special education services and placement“.

Indeed, many of the clients who retain my services also retain the services of educational advocates as well as special education lawyers.  Many of them work on determining appropriate level of services as well as an out of district placement for the children with a variety of special education needs. However, one interesting reoccurring phenomenon I’ve noted over the years is that only a small percentage of special education lawyers, educational advocates, and even parents believed that children with autism spectrum disorders, genetic syndromes, social pragmatic deficits, emotional disturbances, or reading disabilities required a comprehensive language evaluation/reevaluation prior to determining an appropriate out of district placement or an in-district change of service provision.

So today I would like to make a case, in favor of comprehensive independent language evaluations being a routine component of every special education dispute involving a child with impaired academic performance. I will do so through the illustration of past case scenarios that clearly show that comprehensive independent language evaluations do matter, even when it doesn’t look like they may be needed.

Case A: “He is just a weak student”.

Several years ago I was contacted by a parent of a 12 year old boy, who was concerned with his son’s continuously failing academic performance. The child had not qualified for an IEP but was receiving 504 plan in school setting and was reported to significantly struggle due to continuous increase of academic demands with each passing school year.  An in-district language evaluation had been preformed several years prior. It showed that the student’s general language abilities were in the low average range of functioning due to which he did not qualify for speech language services in school setting. However, based on the review of available records it very quickly became apparent that many of the academic areas in which the student struggled (e.g., reading comprehension, social pragmatic ability, critical thinking skills, etc)  were simply not assessed by the general language testing. I had suggested to the parent a comprehensive language evaluation and explained to him on what grounds I was recommending this course of action.  That comprehensive 4 hour assessment broken into several testing sessions revealed that the student presented with severe receptive, expressive, problem solving and social pragmatic language deficits, as well as moderate executive function deficits, which required therapeutic intervention.

Prior to that assessment the parent, reinforced by the feedback from his child’s educational staff believed his son to be an unmotivated student who failed to apply himself in school setting.  However, after the completion of that assessment, the parent clearly understood that it wasn’t his child’s lack of motivation which was impeding his academic performance but rather a true learning disability was making it very difficult for his son to learn without the necessary related services and support. Several months after the appropriate related services were made available to the child in school setting on the basis of the performed IEE, the parent reported significant progress in his child academic performance.

Case B: “She’s just not learning because of her behavior, so there’s nothing we can do”.  

This case involved a six year old girl who presented with a severe speech – language disorder and behavioral deficits in school setting secondary to an intellectual disability of an unspecified origin.

In contrast to Case A scenario, this child had received a variety of assessments and therapies since a very early age; however, her parents were becoming significantly concerned regarding her regression of academic functioning in school setting and felt that a more specialized out of district program with a focus on multiple disabilities would be better suitable to her needs. Unfortunately the school disagreed with them and believed that she could be successfully educated in an in-district setting (despite evidence to the contrary).  Interestingly, an in-depth comprehensive speech language assessment had never been performed on this child because her functioning was considered to be “too low” for such an assessment.

Comprehensive assessment of this little girl’s abilities revealed that via an application of a variety of behavioral management techniques (of non-ABA origin), and highly structured language input, she was indeed capable of significantly better performance then she had exhibited in school setting.  It stood to reason that if she were placed in a specialized school setting composed of educational professionals who were trained in dealing with her complex behavioral and communication needs, her performance would continue to steadily improve.  Indeed, six months following a transfer in schools her parents reported a “drastic” change pertaining to a significant reduction in challenging behavioral manifestations as well as significant increase in her linguistic output.

Case C: “Your child can only learn so much because of his genetic syndrome”.  

This case scenario does not technically involve just one child but rather three different male students between 9 and 11 years of age with several ‘common’ genetic syndromes: Down, Fragile X, and Klinefelter.  All three were different ages, came from completely different school districts, and were seen by me in different calendar years.

However, all three boys had one thing in common, because of their genetic syndromes, which were marked by varying degrees of intellectual disability as well as speech language weaknesses, their parents were collectively told that there could be very little done for them with regards to expanding their expressive language as well as literacy development.

Similarly to the above scenarios, none of the children had undergone comprehensive language testing to determine their strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles. Comprehensive assessment of each student revealed that each had the potential to improve their expressive abilities to speak in compound and complex sentences. Dynamic assessment of literacy also revealed that it was possible to teach each of them how to read.

Following the respective assessments, some of these students had became my private clients, while others’s parents have periodically written to me, detailing their children’s successes over the years.  Each parent had conveyed to me how “life-changing”a comprehensive IEE was to their child.

Case D: “Their behavior is just out of control”

The final case scenario I would like to discuss today involves several students with an educational classification of “Emotionally Disturbed” (pg 71).  Those of you who are familiar with my blog and my work know that my main area of specialty is working with school age students with psychiatric impairments and emotional behavioral disturbances.  There are a number of reasons why I work with this challenging pediatric population. One very important reason is that these students continue to be grossly underserved in school setting. Over the years I have written a variety of articles and blog posts citing a number of research studies, which found that a significant number of students with psychiatric impairments and emotional behavioral disturbances present with undiagnosed linguistic impairments (especially in the area of social communication), which adversely impact their school-based performance.

Here, we are not talking about two or three students rather we’re talking about the numbers in the double digits of students with psychiatric impairments and emotional disturbances, who did not receive appropriate therapies in their respective school settings.

The majority of these students were divided into two distinct categories. In the first category, students began to manifest moderate-to-severe speech language deficits from a very early age. They were classified in preschool and began receiving speech language therapy. However by early elementary age their general language abilities were found to be within the average range of functioning and their language therapies were discontinued.   Unfortunately since general language testing does not assess all categories of linguistic functioning such as critical thinking, executive functions, social communication etc., these students continued to present with hidden linguistic impairments, which continued to adversely impact their behavior.

Students in the second category also began displaying emotional and behavioral challenges from a very early age. However, in contrast to the students in the first category the initial language testing found their general language abilities to be within the average range of functioning. As a result these students never received any language-based therapies and similar to the students in the first category, their hidden linguistic impairments continued to adversely impact their behavior.

Students in both categories ended up following a very similar pattern of behavior. Their behavioral challenges in the school continued to escalate. These were followed by a series of suspensions, out of district placements, myriad of psychiatric and neuropsychological evaluations, until many were placed on home instruction. The one vital element missing from all of these students’ case records were comprehensive language evaluations with an emphasis on assessing their critical thinking, executive functions and social communication abilities. Their worsening patterns of functioning were viewed as “severe misbehaving” without anyone suspecting that their hidden language deficits were a huge contributing factor to their maladaptive behaviors in school setting.

Conclusion:

So there you have it!  As promised, I’ve used four vastly different scenarios that show you the importance of comprehensive language evaluations in situations where it was not so readily apparent that they were needed.  I hope that parents and professionals alike will find this post helpful in reconsidering the need for comprehensive independent evaluations for students presenting with impaired academic performance.

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Part IV: Components of Comprehensive Dyslexia Testing – Writing and Spelling

Recently I began writing a series of posts on the topic of comprehensive assessment of dyslexia.

In part I of my post (HERE), I discussed common dyslexia myths as well as general language testing as a starting point in the dyslexia testing battery.

In part II (HEREI detailed the next two steps in dyslexia assessment: phonological awareness and word fluency testing.

In part III  (HEREI discussed reading fluency and reading comprehension testing.

Today I would like to discuss part IV of comprehensive dyslexia assessment, which involves spelling and writing testing.

Spelling errors can tell us a lot about the child’s difficulties, which is why they are an integral component of dyslexia assessment battery.   There is a significant number of linguistic skills involved in spelling.   Good spellers  have well-developed abilities in the following areas (Apel 2006, Masterson 2014, Wasowicz, 2015):

  1. Phonological Awareness – segmenting, sequencing, identifying and discriminating sounds in words.
  2. Orthographic Knowledge – knowledge of alphabetic principle, sound-letter relationships; letter patterns and conventional spelling rules
  3. Vocabulary Knowledge -knowledge of word meanings and how they can affect spelling
  4. Morphological Knowledge- knowledge of “word parts”: suffixes, prefixes, base words, word roots, etc.; understanding the semantic relationships between base word and related words; knowing how to make appropriate modifications when adding prefixes and suffixes
  5. Mental Orthographic Images of Words- clear and complete mental representations of words or word parts

By administering and analyzing spelling test results  or  spelling samples and quizzes,  we can determine where students’  deficits lie,  and design appropriate interventions  to improve knowledge and skills in the affected areas.

twsWhile there are a number of spelling assessments currently available on the market  I personally prefer that the  Test of Written Spelling – 5 (TWS-5) (Larsen, Hammill & Moats, 2013). The  TWS-5  can be administered to students 6-18 years of age in about 20 minutes in either individual or group settings. It has two forms, each containing 50 spelling words drawn from eight basal spelling series and graded word lists. You can use the results in several ways: to identify students with significant spelling deficits or to determine progress in spelling as a result of RTI interventions.

Now,  lets  move on to assessments of writing.   Here, we’re looking to assess a number of abilities,  which include:

  • Mechanics – is there appropriate use of punctuation, capitalization, abbreviations, etc.?
  • Grammatical and syntactic complexity – are there word/sentence level errors/omissions? How is the student’s sentence structure?
  • Semantic sophistication-use of appropriate vs. immature vocabulary
  • Productivity – can the student generate  enough paragraphs, sentences, etc. or?
  • Cohesion and coherence-  Is the writing sample organized? Does it flow smoothly? Does it make sense? Are the topic shifts marked by appropriate transitional words?
  •  Analysis – can the student edit and revise his writing appropriately?

Again it’s important to note that much like the assessments of reading comprehension  there are no specific tests which can assess this area adequately and comprehensively.  Here, a combination of standardized tests, informal assessment tasks as well as analysis of the students’ written classroom output is recommended.

TEWL-3_EM-159

For standardized assessment purposes clinicians can select Test of Early Written Language–Third Edition (TEWL–3) or Test of Written Language — Fourth Edition  (TOWL-4)

The TEWL-3 for children 4-12 years of age, takes on average 40 minutes to administer (between 30-50 mins.) and examines the following skill areas:

Basic Writing. This subtest consists of 70 items ordered by difficulty, which are scored as 0, 1, or 2. It measures a child’s understanding of language including their metalinguistic knowledge, directionality, organizational structure, awareness of letter features, spelling, capitalization, punctuation, proofing, sentence combining, and logical sentences. It can be administered independently or in conjunction with the Contextual Writing subtest.

Contextual Writing. This subtest consists of 20 items that are scored 0 to 3. Two sets of pictures are provided, one for younger children (ages 5-0 through 6-11) and one for older children (ages 7-0 through 11-11). This subtest measures a child’s ability to construct a story given a picture prompt. It measures story format, cohesion, thematic maturity, ideation, and story structure. It can be administered independently or in conjunction with the Basic Writing subtest.

Overall Writing. This index combines the scores from the Basic Writing and Contextual Writing subtests. It is a measure of the child’s overall writing ability; students who score high on this quotient demonstrate strengths in composition, syntax, mechanics, fluency, cohesion, and the text structure of written language. This score can only be computed if the child completes both subtests and is at least 5 years of age.

TOWL-4_EM-147The TOWL-4 for students 9-18 years of age, takes between 60-90 minutes to administer (often longer) and examines the following skill areas:

  1. Vocabulary – The student writes a sentence that incorporates a stimulus word. E.g.: For ran, a student writes, “I ran up the hill.”
  2. Spelling – The student writes sentences from dictation, making proper use of spelling rules.
  3. Punctuation – The student writes sentences from dictation, making proper use of punctuation and capitalization rules.
  4. Logical Sentences – The student edits an illogical sentence so that it makes better sense. E.g.:  “John blinked his nose” is changed to “John blinked his eye.”
  5. Sentence Combining – The student integrates the meaning of several short sentences into one grammatically correct written sentence. E.g.:  “John drives fast” is combined with “John has a red car,” making “John drives his red car fast.”
  6. Contextual Conventions – The student writes a story in response to a stimulus picture. Points are earned for satisfying specific arbitrary requirements relative to orthographic (E.g.: punctuation, spelling) and grammatic conventions (E.g.: sentence construction, noun-verb agreement).
  7. Story Composition – The student’s story is evaluated relative to the quality of its composition (E.g.: vocabulary, plot, prose, development of characters, and interest to the reader).

It has 3 composites:

  1. Overall Writing- results of all seven subtests
  2. Contrived Writing- results of 5 contrived subtests
  3. Spontaneous Writing-results of 2 spontaneous writing subtests

However, for the purposes of the comprehensive assessment only select portions of the above tests may need be administered  since other overlapping areas (e.g., spelling, punctuation, etc.) may have already been assessed by other tests, a analyzed via the review of student’s written classroom assignments or were encompassed by educational testing.

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Part III: Components of Comprehensive Dyslexia Testing – Reading Fluency and Reading Comprehension

Image result for child reading

Recently I began writing a series of posts on the topic of comprehensive assessment of dyslexia.

In part I of my post (HERE), I discussed common dyslexia myths as well as general language testing as a starting point in the dyslexia testing battery.

In part II I detailed the next two steps in dyslexia assessment: phonological awareness and word fluency testing (HERE).

Today I would like to discuss part III of comprehensive dyslexia assessment, which discusses reading fluency and reading comprehension testing.

Let’s begin with reading fluency testing, which assesses the students’ ability to read word lists or short paragraphs with appropriate speed and accuracy. Here we are looking for how many words the student can accurately read per minute orally and/or silently (see several examples  of fluency rates below).


Research indicates that oral reading fluency (ORF) on passages is more strongly related to reading comprehension than ORF on word lists. This is an important factor which needs to be considered when it comes to oral fluency test selection.

Oral reading fluency tests are significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, they allow us to identify students with impaired reading accuracy. Secondly, they allow us to identify students who can decode words with relative accuracy but who cannot comprehend what they read due to significantly decreased reading speed. When you ask such children: “What did you read about?” They will frequently respond: “I don’t remember because I was so focused on reading the words correctly.”

One example of a popular oral reading fluency test (employing reading passages) is the Gray Oral Reading Tests-5 (GORT-5). It yields the scores on the student’s:GORT-5: Gray Oral Reading Tests–Fifth Edition, Complete Kit

  • Rate
  • Accuracy
  • Fluency
  • Comprehension
  • Oral Reading Index (a composite score based on Fluency and Comprehension scaled scores)

Another types of reading fluency tests are tests of silent reading fluency. Assessments of silent reading fluency can at selectively useful for identifying older students with reading difficulties and monitoring their progress. One obvious advantage to silent reading tests is that they can be administered in group setting to multiple students at once and generally takes just few minutes to administer, which is significantly less then oral reading measures take to be administered to individual students.

Below are a several examples of silent reading tests/subtests.

TOSWRF-2: Test of Silent Word Reading Fluency–Second EditionThe Test of Silent Word Reading Fluency (TOSWRF-2) presents students with rows of words, ordered by reading difficulty without spaces (e.g., dimhowfigblue). Students are given 3 minutes to draw a line between the boundaries of as many words as possible (e.g., dim/how/fig/blue).

The Test of Silent Contextual Reading Fluency (TOSCRF-2) presents students with text passages with all words printed in uppercase letters with no separations between words and no punctuation or spaces between sentences and asks them to use dashes to separate words in a 3 minute period.

Similar to the TOSCRF-2, the Contextual Fluency subtest of the Test of Reading Comprehension – Fourth Edition (TORC-4) measures the student’s ability to recognize individual words in a series of passages (taken from the TORC-4′Text Comprehension subtest) in a period of 3 minutes. Each passage, printed in uppercase letters without punctuation or spaces between words, becomes progressively more difficult in content, vocabulary, and grammar. As students read the segments, they draw a line between as many words as they can in the time allotted.  (E.g., THE|LITTLE|DOG|JUMPED|HIGH)

However, it is important to note oral reading fluency is a better predictor of reading comprehension than is silent reading fluency for younger students (early elementary age). In contrast, silent reading measures are more strongly related to reading comprehension in middle school (e.g., grades 6-8) but only for skilled vs. average readers, which is why oral reading fluency measures are probably much better predictors of deficits in this area in children with suspected reading disabilities.

Now let’s move on to the reading comprehension testing, which is an integral component for any dyslexia testing battery. Unfortunately, it is also the most trickiest. Here’s why.

Many children with reading difficulties will be able to read and comprehend short paragraphs containing factual information of decreased complexity. However, this will change dramatically when it comes to the comprehension of longer, more complex, and increasingly abstract age-level text. While a number of tests do assess reading comprehension, none of them truly adequately assess the students ability to comprehend abstract information.

For example, on the Reading Comprehension subtest of the CELF-5, students are allowed to keep the text and refer to it when answering questions. Such option will inflate the students scores and not provide an accurate idea of their comprehension abilities.

To continue, the GORT-5 contains reading comprehension passages, which the students need to answer after the stimuli booklet has been removed from them. However, the passages are far more simplistic then the academic texts the students need to comprehend on daily basis, so the students may do well on this test yet still continue to present with significant comprehension deficits.

Similar could be said for the text comprehension components of major educational testing batteries such as the Woodcock Johnson IV: Passage Comprehension subtest, which gives the student sentences with a missing word, and the student is asked to orally provide the word. However, filling-in a missing word does not text comprehension make.

WIAT-III Examination KitLikewise, the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test®-Third Edition (WIAT-III), Reading Comprehension subtest is very similar to the CELF-5. Student is asked to read a passage and answer questions by referring back to the text. However, just because a student can look up the answers in text does not mean that they actually understand the text.

So what could be done to accurately assess the student’s ability to comprehend abstract grade level text? My recommendation is to go informal. Select grade-level passages from the student’s curriculum pertaining to science, social studies, geography, etc. vs. language arts (which tends to be more simplistic) and ask the student to read them and answer factual questions regarding supporting details as well as non factual questions relevant to main ideas and implied messages.