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On the Limitations of Using Vocabulary Tests with School-Aged Students

Those of you who read my blog on a semi-regular basis, know that I spend a considerable amount of time in both of my work settings (an outpatient school located in a psychiatric hospital as well as private practice), conducting language and literacy evaluations of preschool and school-aged children 3-18 years of age. During that process, I spend a significant amount of time reviewing outside speech and language evaluations. Interestingly, what I have been seeing is that no matter what the child’s age is (7 or 17), invariably some form of receptive and/or expressive vocabulary testing is always mentioned in their language report.

Many of you may be wondering, “What’s wrong with having a vocabulary test as part of an assessment battery? Isn’t vocabulary hugely correlated with both language and literacy outcomes?”  The answer is, “It is more complicated than that.” Here’s why.

Children with robust lexicons formulate longer sentences and more interesting stories, better comprehend complex texts, and even compensate to some degree for reading deficits (Colozzo et al, 2011Law and Edwards, 2015; Rvachew and Grawburg, 2006).

In contrast, studies have found that children with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) (formerly known as Specific Language Impairment or SLI) have limited expressive vocabularies (Leonard, 2014), have trouble learning new words (Alt & Spaulding, 2011; Storkel et al, 2016), and have clinically significant word retrieval deficits (Dockrell, Messer, George, & Wilson, 1998).

Due to these deficits, one-word vocabulary tests are often used in the assessment process to qualify children for speech and language services (Betz, Eickhoff, & Sullivan, 2013). However, studies have found that single word vocabulary tests have poor psychometric properties and/or are not representative of linguistic competence embedded in life-activities (Gray et al., 1999; Ukrainetz & Blomquist, 2002; Bogue, DeThorne, Schaefer, 2014).

Furthermore, because of this, single word vocabulary tests can overinflate testing scores and not represent the child’s true expressive language competence. Finally, even when a student truly has solid or even superior vocabulary knowledge and naming skills, doesn’t mean that s/he can effectively utilize these abilities during the narrative production as well as reading and writing tasks.

Image result for test resultsDon’t believe me?  Consider reviewing language evaluations of current or former students who received outstanding scores on one-word vocabulary tests, yet who were unable to utilize these words to perform semantic flexibility tasks (e.g., name antonyms, synonyms, provide clear definitions as well as define multiple meaning words), produce coherent and cohesive narratives, comprehend these words in the context of read texts, or utilize them during writing composition tasks.

The problem is that numerous SLPs overuse these tests and rely on them for qualification purposes when diagnosing language impairment (Betz, Eickhoff, & Sullivan, 2013). However, the practice of qualifying students based on single-word vocabulary testing in conjunction with psychometrically weak comprehensive testing (visit HERE for a compilation of psychometric data on major SLP testing), can often result in many language-impaired students not being qualified for language therapy services despite desperately needing them.

Image result for informed decisionNow it’s important to understand that I am not recommending elimination of vocabulary tests from SLP assessment batteries.  I am merely suggesting that SLPs use these tests wisely during the assessment process, and utilize them with children who truly benefit from their administration. Such populations include toddlers and preschoolers (under 5 years of age) as well as any children presenting with severe language deficits regardless of age, secondary to intellectual and neuro/developmental impairments such as ASD, DS, FXS, FASD, etc.  They are especially relevant for children with limited vocabularies who are unable to effectively participate in semantic flexibility tasks or produce narratives. As such, we want to learn more about the types of words they know and use on a daily basis to express their wants/needs, so we can increase their lexicon for functional communication purposes and prepare them for effective engagement in both semantic flexibility as well as narrative tasks, in order to further improve their language abilities.

In contrast, for children age 5-6 and older, it is far more practical for SLPs to functionally determine their linguistic flexibility skills as pertaining to the use of language.  This can be accomplished via standardized as well as informal measures. As mentioned above, broadly speaking, linguistic flexibility tasks focus on the manipulation of language.  Tasks such as generation of attributes, production of synonyms and antonyms, formulation of clear and precise definitions of words as well as explanations of multiple meaning, figurative, and ambiguous words and sentences are all examples of language manipulation tasks.

As such, these tasks are far more representative of the student’s language ability in an academic setting versus selecting a picture out of a visual field of four items (receptive identification) or naming a word in the presented picture (expressive generation).

Now there are numerous tests which possess subtests relevant to this purpose.  I, personally, often use select subtests from the below tests:

  • The WORD Tests (Elementary and Adolescent)
    • Associations
    • Antonyms
    • Synonyms
    • Definitions
    • Flexible Meanings
  • Language Processing Test – 3 (LPT-3)
    • Similarities and Differences
    • Multiple Meaning Words
    • Attributes
  • Expressive Language Test – 2 (ELT-2)
    • Metalinguistics
    • Defining Categories
  • Test of Integrated Language and Literacy 
    • Vocabulary Awareness
  • Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals – 5 Metalinguistics (CELF-5M)
    • Multiple Meanings
    • Figurative Language

There are a number of other tests which contain subtests suitable for this purpose. SLPs can also easily create their own informal assessment procedures, similar to the above, for clinical assessment purposes.

However, even these tasks, though a huge improvement over one-word vocabulary tests are not sufficient. In addition to these, research strongly recommends the inclusion of narrative assessment (which is highly correlated with social, reading, as well as academic outcomes), as part of SLP assessment battery.

Related imageNarrative language skills have routinely been identified as one of the single best predictors of future academic success (Bishop & Edmundson, 1987; Feegans & Appelbaum 1986; Dickinson and McCabe, 2001). Language produced during story retelling is positively related to monolingual and bilingual reading achievement (Reese et al, 2010; Miller et al, 2006) Narratives provide insights into child’s verbal expression by tapping into multiple language features and organizational abilities simultaneously (Hoffman, 2009; Ukrainetz, 2006;Bliss & McCabe, 2012). They encompass a number of higher-level language and cognitive skills (Paul et al, 1996) such as event sequencing, text cohesiveness, use of precise vocabulary to convey ideas without visual support, comprehension of cause-effect relationships, etc. Narratives bridge the gap between oral and written language and are needed for solid reading and writing development (Snow et al, 1998).

Contrastingly, poor discourse and narrative abilities place children at risk for learning and literacy-related difficulties including reading problems (McCabe & Rosenthal-Rollins, 1994), while narrative weaknesses significantly correlate with social communication deficits (Norbury, Gemmell & Paul, 2014). As a result, narrative analyses help SLPs with distinguishing children with DLD from their typically developing (TD) peers (Allen et al 2012).

So the next time you are tasked with selecting appropriate language testing to determine whether a student presents with language and literacy deficits, don’t be so hasty in picking up that single-word vocabulary test.  Take a moment to carefully consider its utility for the student in question. After all, it may very well be a determining factor in deciding whether the student will qualify for language therapy services.

References: 

  1. Allen, M,  Ukrainetz, T & Carswell, A (2012) The narrative language performance of three types of at-risk first-grade readersLanguage, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 43(2), 205-221.
  2. Alt, M., & Spaulding, T. (2011). The effect of time on word learning: An examination of decay of the memory trace and vocal rehearsal in children with and without specific language impairmentJournal of Communication Disorders44(6), 640–654
  3. Betz, Eickhoff, & Sullivan,( 2013) Factors Influencing the Selection of Standardized Tests for the Diagnosis of Specific Language Impairment. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 44, 133-146.
  4. Bishop, D. V. M., & Edmundson, A. (1987). Language-impaired 4-year-olds: Distinguishing transient from persistent impairment. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 52, 156–173.
  5. Bliss, L. & McCabe, A (2012, Oct) Personal Narratives: Assessment and InterventionPerspectives on Language Learning and Education. 19:130-138.
  6. Bogue, E. L., DeThorne, L. S., & Schaefer, B. A. (2014). A psychometric analysis of childhood vocabulary tests. Contemporary Issues in Communication Science and Disorders, 41, 55-69.
  7. Colozzo, P., Gillam, R. B., Wood, M., Schnell, R. D., & Johnston, J. R. (2011). Content and form in the narratives of children with specific language impairment. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 54(6), 1609-1627.
  8. Dickinson D. K., McCabe A. (2001). Bringing it all together: the multiple origins, skills and environmental supports of early literacy. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice. 16, 186–202.
  9. Dockrell, J. E., Messer, D., George, R., & Wilson, G. (1998). Children with word-finding difficulties: Prevalence, presentation and naming problems. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 33, 445–454.
  10. Feegans, L.,& Appelbaum, M (1986). Validation of language subtypes in learning disabled childrenJournal of Educational Psychology78, 358–364.
  11. Gray, S., Plante, E., Vance, R., & Henrichsen, M. (1999). The diagnostic accuracy of four vocabulary tests administered to preschool-age children. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools30(2), 196–206.
  12. Hoffman, L. M. (2009). Narrative language intervention intensity and dosage: Telling the whole story. Topics in Language Disorders29, 329–343.
  13. Law, F., II, & Edwards, J.R. (2015). Effects of vocabulary size on online lexical processing by preschoolers. Language Learning and Development11, 331–355.
  14. Leonard, L. B. (2014). Children with specific language impairment. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  15. McCabe, A., & Rollins, P. R. (1994). Assessment of preschool narrative skills. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 3(1), 45–56
  16. Miller, J et al (2006). Oral language and reading in bilingual childrenLearning Disabilities Research and Practice, 21, 30–43
  17. Norbury, C. F., Gemmell, T., & Paul, R. (2014). Pragmatics abilities in narrative production: a cross-disorder comparison. Journal of child language, 41(03), 485-510.
  18. Paul R, Hernandez R, Taylor L, Johnson K. (1996) Narrative development in late talkers: early school age. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 39(6):1295–1303
  19. Reese E., Suggate S., Long J., Schaughency E. (2010). Children’s oral narrative and reading skills in the first three years of reading instruction. Reading & Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 23, 627–644.
  20. Rvachew S., Grawburg M. (2006). Correlates of phonological awareness in preschoolers with speech sound disorders. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 49: 74–87.
  21. Snow, C.E., Burns, M.S., & Griffin, P. (eds.) (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press
  22. Ukrainetz, T. A. (2006). Teaching narrative structure: Coherence, cohesion, and captivation. In T. A. Ukrainetz (Ed.), Contextualized language intervention: Scaffolding PreK–12 literacy achievement (pp. 195–246). Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.
  23. Ukrainetz, T. A., & Blomquist, C. (2002). The criterion validity of four vocabulary tests compared with a language
    sample. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 18, 59–78.

 

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Show me the Data or Why I Hate the Phrase: “It’s Not So Bad”

KEEP CALMA few days ago I was asked by my higher-ups for a second opinion on a consult regarding a psychological evaluation on an 11-year-old boy, which was depicting a certain pattern of deficits without a reasonable justification as to why they were occurring. I had a working hypothesis but needed more evidence to turn it into a viable theory.  So I set out to collect more evidence by interviewing a few ancillary professionals who were providing therapy services to the student.

The first person I interviewed was his OT, whom I asked regarding the quality of his graphomotor skills. She responded: “Oh, they are not so bad”.

I was perplexed to say the least. What does that mean I asked her. She responded back with: “He can write.”

“But I am not asking you whether he can write”, I responded back.  “I am asking you to provide data that will indicate whether his visual perceptual skills, orthographic coding, motor planning and execution, kinesthetic feedback, as well as visual motor coordination,  are on par or below those of his grade level peers.”

Needless to say this student graphomotor abilities were nowhere near those of his peers.  The below “sample” took me approximately 12 minutes to elicit and required numerous prompts from myself as well as self-corrections from the student to produce.

FullSizeRenderThis got me thinking of all the parents and professionals who hear litotes such as “It’s not so bad”, or overgeneralized phrases such as: “Her social skills are fine“,  “He is functioning higher than what the testing showed“,”He can read“, etc., on daily basis, instead of being provided with detailed data regarding the student’s present level of functioning in a particular academic area.

This has to stop, right now!

If you are an educational or health professional who has a habit of making such statements – beware! You are not doing yourself any favors by saying it and you can actually get into some pretty hot water if you are ever involved in a legal dispute.

Here’s why:

SIGNIFY NOTHING

These statements are meaningless! 

They signify nothing!  Let’s use a commonly heard phrase: “He can read.”  Sounds fairly simple, right?

Wrong!

In order to make this “loaded” statement, a professional actually needs to understand what the act of reading entails.  The act of reading contains a number of active components:

In other words if the child can decode all the words on the page, but their reading rate is slow and labored, then they cannot read!

If the child is a fast but inaccurate reader and has trouble decoding new words then they’re not a reader either!

If the child reads everything quickly and accurately but comprehends very little then they are also not a reader!

Let us now examine another loaded statement, I’ve heard recently for a fellow SLP: “His skills are higher than your evaluation depicted.” Again, what does that mean? Do you have audio, video, or written documentation to support your assertion?   No professional should ever make that statement without having detailed data to support it. Otherwise, you will be hearing: “SHOW ME THE DATA!

These statements are harmful!

They imply to parents that the child is doing relatively well as compared to peers when nothing could be further from the truth! As a good friend and colleague, Maria Del Duca of Communication Station Blog has stated: [By making these comments] We begin to accept a range of behavior we believe is acceptable for no other reason than we have made that decision. With this idea of mediocrity we limit our client’s potential by unconsciously lowering the bar.”

You might as well be making comments such as: “Well, it’s as good as it going to get”, indicating that the child’s genetic predestination imposes limits on what a child might achieve” (Walz Garrett, 2012 pg. 30)

These statements are subjective!

They fail to provide any objective evidence such as type of skills addressed within a subset of abilities, percentage of accuracy achieved, number of trials needed, or number of cues and prompts given to the child in order to achieve the aforementioned accuracy.

These statements make you look unprofessional! 

I can’t help but laugh when I review progress reports with the following comments:

Social Communication:  Johnny is a pleasant child who much more readily interacted with his peers during the present progress reporting period.

What on earth does that mean?  What were Johnny’s specific social communication goals? Was he supposed to initiate conversations more frequently with peers? Was he supposed to acknowledge in some way that his peers actually exist on the same physical plane? Your guess is as good as mine!

Reading:  Johnny is more willing to read short stories at this time.

Again, what on earth does that mean? What type of text can Johnny now decode? Which consonant digraphs can he consistently recognize in text? Can he differentiate between long and short vowels in CVC and CVCV words such as /bit/ and /bite/? I have no clue because none of that was included in his report.

These statements can cause legal difficulties! 

I don’t know about your graduate preparation but I’m pretty sure that most diagnostics professors, repeatedly emphasized to the graduate SLP students the importance of professional record-keeping.  Every professor in my acquaintance has that story – the one where they had to go to court and only their detailed scrupulous record-keeping has kept them from crying and cowering from the unrelenting verbal onslaught of the plaintiff’s educational attorney.

Ironically this is exactly what’s going to happen if you keep making these statements and have no data to support your client’s present level of functioning! Legal disputes between parents of developmentally/language impaired children and districts occur at an alarming rate throughout United States; most often over perceived educational deprivation and lack of access to FAPE (Free and Appropriate Education). I would not envy any educational/health related professional who is caught in the middle of these cases lacking data to support appropriate service provision to the student in question.

Conclusion: 

So there you have it! These are just a few (of many) reasons why I loathe the phrase: “It’s Not So Bad”.  The bottom line is that this vague and subjective statement does a huge disservice to our students as individuals and to us as qualified and competent professionals.  So the next time it’s on the tip of your tongue: “Just don’t say it!” And if you are on the receiving end of it, just calmly ask the professional making that statement: “Show me the data!”

 

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App Review and Giveaway Questions Hunt

Today I am reviewing an app from Virtual Speech Center called Questions Hunt.  The app targets answering 60 yes/no as well as 360 WH questions (what, where, who, when, why and how) in young children with language disorders.

This app is thematically based with questions in the following categories:

  • Beach
  • Park
  • Store
  • Campground
  • Airport and
  • School

This app is very easy to navigate containing typical Virtual Speech Center set up.

IMG_0453

IMG_0454

Once you select your individual student or your group of students simply tap on the questions you want them to answer (when, why, etc.) and the location you want to target (beach, park, etc.) and you’re good to go.IMG_0455

Next you will be taking two different pages depicting campground, school etc. They will depict people and objects with question marks hovering above them. Click on the question mark to begin answering questions.IMG_0456

If you are working on improving the student’s receptive language abilities then the student is shown the question which is also read orally along with 3 multiple choice answers. S/he can answer the questions by tapping on the correct answer choice.

IMG_0457

In expressive tasks,  the students are only shown the questions to which they must provide their own oral responses.

IMG_0458

In order to move between the questions the students need to swipe on the screen with their finger to the right until they get to the very end of all the questions in a particular category. Then if multiple locations were selected such as the park and the beach, the students need to press the “NEXT” button in order to move on to the next location.

 What I like about this app:

  • I like the bright and engaging thematically based illustrations
  • I really like the fact that I can use the app to target multiple goals including:
    • Auditory memory
    • Listening comprehension
    • Sentence formulation
    • Vocabulary knowledge and use
    • Critical thinking and verbal reasoning
  • I love the fact that this app is very useful for my preschool population as well as for children with developmental disabilities such as ASD and genetic syndromes (Down, Fragile X, etc.)

All in all this is a nice functional app for targeting WH questions in language impaired children. You can find this app on iTunes for $4.99, or thanks to the Virtual Speech Center you can enter my Rafflecopter giveaway to win a free code.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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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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Recommendations for Assessing Language Abilities of Verbal Children with Down Syndrome (DS)

Kid-1Assessment of children with DS syndrome is often complicated due to the wide spectrum of presenting deficits (e.g., significant health issues in conjunction with communication impairment, lack of expressive language, etc) making accurate assessment of their communication a difficult task. In order to provide these children with appropriate therapy services via the design of targeted goals and objectives, we need to create comprehensive assessment procedures that focus on highlighting their communicative strengths and not just their deficits.

Today I’d like to discuss assessment procedures for verbal monolingual and bilingual children with DS 4-9 years of age, since testing instruments as well as assessment procedures for younger as well as older verbal and nonverbal children with DS do differ.

When it comes to dual language use and genetic disorders and developmental disabilities many educational and health care professionals are still under the erroneous assumption that it is better to use one language (English) to communicate with these children at home and at school.  However, studies have shown that not only can children with DS become functionally bilingual they can even become functionally trilingual (Vallar & Papagno, 1993; Woll & Grove, 1996).  It is important to understand that “bilingualism does not change the general profile of language strengths and weaknesses characteristic of DS—most children with DS will have receptive vocabulary strengths and expressive language weaknesses, regardless of whether they are monolingual or bilingual.” (Kay-Raining Bird, 2009, p. 194)

Furthermore, advising a bilingual family to only speak English with a child will cause a number of negative linguistic and psychosocial implications, such as create social isolation from family members who may not speak English well as well as adversely affect parent-child relationships (Portes & Hao, 1998).

Consequently, when preparing to assess linguistic abilities of children with DS we need to first determine whether these children have single or dual language exposure and design assessment procedures accordingly.

Pre-assessment Considerations

It is very important to conduct a parental interview no matter the setting you are performing the assessment in. One of your goals during the interview will be to establish the functional goals the parents’ desire for the child which may not always coincide with the academic expectations of the program in question.

Begin with a detailed case history and review of current records and obtain information about the child’s prenatal, perinatal and postnatal development, medical history as well as the nature of previous assessments and provided related services. Next, obtain a detailed history of the child’s language use by inquiring what languages are spoken by household members and how much time do these people spend with the child?

Choosing Testing Instruments 

A balanced assessment will include a variety of methods, including observations of the child as well as direct interactions in the form of standardized, informal and dynamic assessments. If you will be using standardized assessments (e.g., ROWPVT-4) YOU MUST use descriptive measures vs. standardized scores to describe the child’s functioning. The latter is especially applicable to bilingual children with DS. Consider using the following disclaimer: “The following test/s __________were normed on typically developing English speaking children. Testing materials are not available in standardized form for child’s unique developmental and bilingual/bicultural backgrounds. In accordance with IDEA 2004 (The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) [20 U.S.C.¤1414(3)],official use of standard scores for this child would be inaccurate and misleading so the results reported are presented in descriptive form.  Raw scores are provided here only for comparison with future performance.”

Selecting Standardized Assessments 

Depending on the child’s age and level of abilities a variety of assessment measures may be applicable to test the child in the areas of Content (vocabulary), Form (grammar/syntax), and Use(pragmatic language).

For children over 3 years of age whose linguistic abilities are just emerging you may wish to use a vocabulary inventory such as the MacArthur-Bates (also available in other languages) as well as provide parents with the Developmental Scale for Children with Down Syndrome to fill out. This will allow you to compare where child with DS features in their development as compared to typically developing peers. For older, more verbal children who are using words, phrases, and/or sentences to express themselves, you may want to use or adapt (see above) one of the following standardized language tests:

Informal Assessment Procedures 

Depending on your setting (hospital vs. school), you may not perform a detailed assessment of the child’s feeding and swallowing skills. However, it is still important to understand that due to low muscle tone, respiratory problems, gastrointestinal disorders and cardiac issues, children with DSoften present with feeding dysfunction which is further exacerbated by concomitant issues such as obesity, GERD, constipation, malnutrition (restricted food group intake lacking in vitamins and minerals), and fatigue. With respect to swallowing, they may experience abnormalities in both the oral and pharyngeal phases of swallow, as well as present with silent aspiration, due to which instrumental assessment (MBS) may be necessary (Frazer & Friedman, 2006).

In contrast to feeding and swallowing the oral-peripheral assessment can be performed in all settings. When performing oral-peripheral exam, you need to carefully describe all structural (anatomical) and functional (physiological) abnormalities (e.g., macroglossia, micrognathia, prognathism, etc).   Note any issues with:

  • —  Dentition (e.g., dental overcrowding, occlusion, etc)
  • —  Tongue/jaw disassociation  (ability to separate tongue from jaw when speaking)
  • —  Mouth Posture (open/closed) and tongue positioning  at rest (protruding/retracted)
  • —  Control of oral secretions
  • —  Lingual and buccal strength, movement (e.g., lingual protrusion, elevation, lateralization, and depression for volitional tasks) and control
  • —  Mandibular (jaw) strength, stability and grading

Take a careful look at the child’s speech. Perform dual speech sampling (if applicable) by considering the child’s phonetic inventory, syllable lengths and shapes as well as articulatory/phonological error patterns.  Make sure to factor in the combined effect of the child’s craniofacial anomalies as well as system wide impairment (disturbances in respiration, voice, articulation, resonance, fluency, and prosody) on conversational intelligibility. Impaired intelligibility is a serious concern for individuals with DS, as it tends to persist throughout life for many of them and significantly interferes with social and vocational pursuits (Kent & Vorperian, 2013)

Don’t forget to assess the child’s voice, fluency, prosody, and resonance. Children with DS may have difficulty maintaining constant airstream for vocal production due to which they may occasionally speak with low vocal volume and breathiness (caused by air loss due to vocal fold hypotonicity). This may be directly targeted in treatment sessions and taught how to compensate for.  When assessing resonance make sure to screen the child for hypernasality which may be due to velopharyngeal insufficiency secondary to hypotonicity as well as rule out hyponasality which may be due to enlarged adenoids (Kent & Vorperian, 2013). Furthermore, since stuttering and cluttering occur in children with DS at rates of 10 to 45%, compared to about 1% in the general population, a detailed analysis of disfluencies may be necessary(Kent & Vorperian, 2013). Finally, due to limitations with perception, imitation, and spontaneous production of prosodic features secondary to motor difficulties, motor coordination issues, and segmental errors that impede effective speech production across multisyllabic sequences, the prosody of individuals with DS will be impaired and might require a separate intervention. (Kent & Vorperian, 2013)

When it comes to auditory function, formal hearing testing and retesting is mandatory due to the fact that many children with DS have high prevalence of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss (Park et al, 2012). So if the child in question is not receiving regular follow-ups from the audiologist, it is very important to make the appropriate referral. Similarly, it is also very important that the child’s visual perception is assessed as well since children with DS frequently experience difficulties with vision acuity as well as visual processing, consequentially a consultation with developmental optometrist may be recommended/needed.

Describe in detail the child’s adaptive behavior and learning style, including their social strengths and weaknesses. Observe the child’s eye contact, affect, attention to task, level of distractibility, and socialization patterns. Document the number of redirections and negotiations the child needed to participate as well as types and level of reinforcement used during testing.

Perform dual language sampling and look at functional vocabulary knowledge and use, grammar measures, sentence length, as well as the child’s pragmatic functions (what is the child using his/her language for: request, reject, comment, etc.) Perform a dynamic assessment to determine the child’s learnability (e.g., how quickly does the child learns and adapts to being taught new concepts?) since “even a minimal mediation in the form of ‘focusing’ improves the receptive language performance of children with DS” (Alony & Kozulin, 2007, p 323)

After all the above sections are completed, it is time to move on to the impressions section of the report.  While it is important to document the weaknesses exposed by the assessment, it is even more important to document the child’s strengths or all the things the child did well, since this will help you to determine the starting treatment point and allow you to formulate relevant treatment goals.

When making recommendations for treatment, especially for bilingual children with DS, make sure to provide a strong rationale for the provision of services in both languages (if applicable) as well as specify the importance of continued support of the first language in the home.

Finally, make sure to provide targeted and measurable [suggested] treatment goals by breaking the targets into measurable parts:

Given ___time period (1 year, 1 progress reporting period, etc), the student will be able to (insert specific goal) with ___accuracy/trials, given ___ level of, given _____type of prompts.

Assessing communication abilities of children with developmental disabilities may not be easy; however, having the appropriate preparation and training will ensure that you will be well prepared to do the job right!  Use multiple tasks and activities to create a balanced assessment, use descriptive measures instead of standard scores to report findings, and most importantly make your assessment functional by making sure that your testing yields relevant diagnostic information which could then be effectively used to provide effective quality treatments for clients with DS!

For comprehensive information on “Comprehensive Assessment of Monolingual and Bilingual Children with Down Syndrome” which discusses how to assess young (birth-early elementary age) verbal and nonverbal monolingual and bilingual children with Down Syndrome (DS) and offers comprehensive examples of write-ups based on real-life clients click HERE.

Other Helpful Resources

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What is ND-PAE and how is it Related to FASD?

The DSM-5 was released in May 2013 and with it came a revision of criteria for the diagnosis and classification of many psychiatric disorders.  Among them a new proposed criteria was included relevant to alcohol related deficits in children, which is Neurobehavioral Disorder Associated  With Prenatal Alcohol Exposure (ND-PAE) (DSM-5, pgs 798-801). This proposed criteria was included in order to better serve the complex mental health needs of individuals diagnosed with alcohol related deficits, which the previous diagnosis of 760.71 – Alcohol affecting fetus or newborn via placenta or breast milk was unable to adequately capture.   Continue reading What is ND-PAE and how is it Related to FASD?

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Comprehensive Assessment of Monolingual and Bilingual Children with Down Syndrome

Assessing speech-language abilities of children with genetic disorders and developmental disabilities is no easy feat. Although developmental and genetic disorders affecting cognition, communication and functioning are increasingly widespread, speech-language assessment procedures for select populations (e.g., Down Syndrome) remain poorly understood by many speech-language professionals, resulting in ineffective or inappropriate service provision. Continue reading Comprehensive Assessment of Monolingual and Bilingual Children with Down Syndrome

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What parents need to know about speech-language assessment of older internationally adopted children

This post is based on Elleseff, T (2013) Changing Trends in International Adoption: Implications for Speech-Language Pathologists. Perspectives on Global Issues in Communication Sciences and Related Disorders, 3: 45-53

Changing Trends in International Adoption:

In recent years the changing trends in international adoption revealed a shift in international adoption demographics which includes more preschool and school-aged children being sent for adoption vs. infants and toddlers (Selman, 2012a; 2010) as well as a significant increase in special needs adoptions from Eastern European countries as well as from China (Selman, 2010; 2012a). Continue reading What parents need to know about speech-language assessment of older internationally adopted children

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New Giveaway: Speech Therapy for Apraxia – Words

A little while ago I reviewed “Speech Therapy for Apraxia-WORDS” by Blue Whale Apps. You can Find this post HERE. Similarly to Speech Therapy for Apraxia, the Words version is designed for working on motor planning with children and adults presenting with developmental or acquired apraxia of speech. However, this app focuses on the child producing monosyllabic words vs. individual syllables.

There are 9 different word groups to chose from and the words are categorized according to place of articulation of the phonemes and pattern of articulation within the word.  Similar to the Speech Therapy for Apraxia app,  the goal of WORDS is to gradually increase the levels  of difficulty to improve motor planning for speech.

To recap from the previous post what I like about this app:

  • The word groups are arranged in a hierarchical order of complexitywhich is hugely important.
  • Great for drills of CVC  monosyllabic words with very involved children.
  • Great for introducing new words into the child’s repertoire.
  • Pictures are provided (great for teaching vocabulary)
  • Audio models are provided, which is great for all clients but particularly for very young children.
  • This app is perfect for drills so you can use it in the initial stages of working with children with a variety of speech sound deficits including articulation and phonological disorders.
  • Parents can use this app to practice at home what was taught in therapy.

Please note that the app works on iPad, Android devices and the Nook

The app developer was kind enough to provide me with 3 copies of this app AGAIN to give away to a few lucky contestants so enter my Rafflecopter giveaway for a chance to check out this awesome app for yourself for free.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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App Review: Socially Speaking: A Social Skills Assessment Protocol

Socially Speaking Main PageLately I have been compiling materials for assessment of social skills of younger children in preparation for an article on this topic. That is why I was excited to get the opportunity to review “Socially Speaking ” an app developed by Penina Rybak.  Penina is an Educational Technology Consultant and an Autism Specialist, who has been a practicing SLP for almost 2 decades. “Socially Speaking” is Penina’s Social Skills Assessment Protocol, which assesses social skills development in young children with Autism and special needs.

The app was created with the following purposes in mind: Continue reading App Review: Socially Speaking: A Social Skills Assessment Protocol