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Improving Executive Function Skills of Language Impaired Students with Hedbanz

Image result for hedbanzThose of you who have previously read my blog know that I rarely use children’s games to address language goals.  However, over the summer I have been working on improving executive function abilities (EFs) of some of the language impaired students on my caseload. As such, I found select children’s games to be highly beneficial for improving language-based executive function abilities.

For those of you who are only vaguely familiar with this concept, executive functions are higher level cognitive processes involved in the inhibition of thought, action, and emotion, which located in the prefrontal cortex of the frontal lobe of the brain. The development of executive functions begins in early infancy; but it can be easily disrupted by a number of adverse environmental and organic experiences (e.g., psychosocial deprivation, trauma).  Furthermore, research in this area indicates that the children with language impairments present with executive function weaknesses which require remediation.

Image result for executive functions brain

EF components include working memory, inhibitory control, planning, and set-shifting.

  • Working memory
    • Ability to store and manipulate information in mind over brief periods of time
  • Inhibitory control
    • Suppressing responses that are not relevant to the task
  • Set-shifting
    • Ability to shift behavior in response to changes in tasks or environment

Simply put, EFs contribute to the child’s ability to sustain attention, ignore distractions, and succeed in academic settings. By now some of you must be wondering: “So what does Hedbanz have to do with any of it?”

Well, Hedbanz is a quick-paced multiplayer  (2-6 people) game of “What Am I?” for children ages 7 and up.  Players get 3 chips and wear a “picture card” in their headband. They need to ask questions in rapid succession to figure out what they are. “Am I fruit?” “Am I a dessert?” “Am I sports equipment?” When they figure it out, they get rid of a chip. The first player to get rid of all three chips wins.

The game sounds deceptively simple. Yet if any SLPs or parents have ever played that game with their language impaired students/children as they would be quick to note how extraordinarily difficult it is for the children to figure out what their card is. Interestingly, in my clinical experience, I’ve noticed that it’s not just moderately language impaired children who present with difficulty playing this game. Even my bright, average intelligence teens, who have passed vocabulary and semantic flexibility testing (such as the WORD Test 2-Adolescent or the  Vocabulary Awareness subtest of the Test of Integrated Language and Literacy ) significantly struggle with their language organization when playing this game.

So what makes Hedbanz so challenging for language impaired students? Primarily, it’s the involvement and coordination of the multiple executive functions during the game. In order to play Hedbanz effectively and effortlessly, the following EF involvement is needed:

  • Task Initiation
    • Students with executive function impairments will often “freeze up” and as a result may have difficulty initiating the asking of questions in the game because many will not know what kind of questions to ask, even after extensive explanations and elaborations by the therapist.
  • Organization
    • Students with executive function impairments will present with difficulty organizing their questions by meaningful categories and as a result will frequently lose their track of thought in the game.
  • Working Memory
    • This executive function requires the student to keep key information in mind as well as keep track of whatever questions they have already asked.
  • Flexible Thinking
    • This executive function requires the student to consider a situation from multiple angles in order to figure out the quickest and most effective way of arriving at a solution. During the game, students may present with difficulty flexibly generating enough organizational categories in order to be effective participants.
  • Impulse Control
    • Many students with difficulties in this area may blurt out an inappropriate category or in an appropriate question without thinking it through first.
      • They may also present with difficulty set-shifting. To illustrate, one of my 13-year-old students with ASD, kept repeating the same question when it was his turn, despite the fact that he was informed by myself as well as other players of the answer previously.
  • Emotional Control
    • This executive function will help students with keeping their emotions in check when the game becomes too frustrating. Many students of difficulties in this area will begin reacting behaviorally when things don’t go their way and they are unable to figure out what their card is quickly enough. As a result, they may have difficulty mentally regrouping and reorganizing their questions when something goes wrong in the game.
  • Self-Monitoring
    • This executive function allows the students to figure out how well or how poorly they are doing in the game. Students with poor insight into own abilities may present with difficulty understanding that they are doing poorly and may require explicit instruction in order to change their question types.
  • Planning and Prioritizing
    • Students with poor abilities in this area will present with difficulty prioritizing their questions during the game.

Image result for executive functionsConsequently, all of the above executive functions can be addressed via language-based goals.  However, before I cover that, I’d like to review some of my session procedures first.

Typically, long before game initiation, I use the cards from the game to prep the students by teaching them how to categorize and classify presented information so they effectively and efficiently play the game.

Rather than using the “tip cards”, I explain to the students how to categorize information effectively.

This, in turn, becomes a great opportunity for teaching students relevant vocabulary words, which can be extended far beyond playing the game.

I begin the session by explaining to the students that pretty much everything can be roughly divided into two categories animate (living) or inanimate (nonliving) things. I explain that humans, animals, as well as plants belong to the category of living things, while everything else belongs to the category of inanimate objects. I further divide the category of inanimate things into naturally existing and man-made items. I explain to the students that the naturally existing category includes bodies of water, landmarks, as well as things in space (moon, stars, sky, sun, etc.). In contrast, things constructed in factories or made by people would be example of man-made objects (e.g., building, aircraft, etc.)

When I’m confident that the students understand my general explanations, we move on to discuss further refinement of these broad categories. If a student determines that their card belongs to the category of living things, we discuss how from there the student can further determine whether they are an animal, a plant, or a human. If a student determined that their card belongs to the animal category, we discuss how we can narrow down the options of figuring out what animal is depicted on their card by asking questions regarding their habitat (“Am I a jungle animal?”), and classification (“Am I a reptile?”). From there, discussion of attributes prominently comes into play. We discuss shapes, sizes, colors, accessories, etc., until the student is able to confidently figure out which animal is depicted on their card.

In contrast, if the student’s card belongs to the inanimate category of man-made objects, we further subcategorize the information by the object’s location (“Am I found outside or inside?”; “Am I found in ___ room of the house?”, etc.), utility (“Can I be used for ___?”), as well as attributes (e.g., size, shape, color, etc.)

Thus, in addition to improving the students’ semantic flexibility skills (production of definitions, synonyms, attributes, etc.) the game teaches the students to organize and compartmentalize information in order to effectively and efficiently arrive at a conclusion in the most time expedient fashion.

Now, we are ready to discuss what type of EF language-based goals, SLPs can target by simply playing this game.

1. Initiation: Student will initiate questioning during an activity in __ number of instances per 30-minute session given (maximal, moderate, minimal) type of  ___  (phonemic, semantic, etc.) prompts and __ (visual, gestural, tactile, etc.) cues by the clinician.

2. Planning: Given a specific routine, student will verbally state the order of steps needed to complete it with __% accuracy given (maximal, moderate, minimal) type of  ___  (phonemic, semantic, etc.) prompts and __ (visual, gestural, tactile, etc.) cues by the clinician.

3. Working Memory: Student will repeat clinician provided verbal instructions pertaining to the presented activity, prior to its initiation, with 80% accuracy  given (maximal, moderate, minimal) type of  ___  (phonemic, semantic, etc.) prompts and __ (visual, gestural, tactile, etc.) cues by the clinician.

4. Flexible Thinking: Following a training by the clinician, student will generate at least __ questions needed for task completion (e.g., winning the game) with __% accuracy given (maximal, moderate, minimal) type of  ___  (phonemic, semantic, etc.) prompts and __ (visual, gestural, tactile, etc.) cues by the clinician.

5. Organization: Student will use predetermined written/visual cues during an activity to assist self with organization of information (e.g., questions to ask) with __% accuracy given (maximal, moderate, minimal) type of  ___  (phonemic, semantic, etc.) prompts and __ (visual, gestural, tactile, etc.) cues by the clinician.

6. Impulse Control: During the presented activity the student will curb blurting out inappropriate responses (by silently counting to 3 prior to providing his response) in __ number of instances per 30 minute session given (maximal, moderate, minimal) type of  ___  (phonemic, semantic, etc.) prompts and __ (visual, gestural, tactile, etc.) cues by the clinician.

7. Emotional Control: When upset, student will verbalize his/her frustration (vs. behavioral activing out) in __ number of instances per 30 minute session given (maximal, moderate, minimal) type of  ___  (phonemic, semantic, etc.) prompts and __ (visual, gestural, tactile, etc.) cues by the clinician.

8. Self-Monitoring:  Following the completion of an activity (e.g., game) student will provide insight into own strengths and weaknesses during the activity (recap) by verbally naming the instances in which s/he did well, and instances in which s/he struggled with __% accuracy given (maximal, moderate, minimal) type of  ___  (phonemic, semantic, etc.) prompts and __ (visual, gestural, tactile, etc.) cues by the clinician.

There you have it. This one simple game doesn’t just target a plethora of typical expressive language goals. It can effectively target and improve language-based executive function goals as well. Considering the fact that it sells for approximately $12 on, that’s a pretty useful therapy material to have in one’s clinical tool repertoire. For fancier versions, clinicians can use “Jeepers Peepers” photo card sets sold by Super Duper Inc. Strapped for cash, due to highly limited budget? You can find plenty of free materials online if you simply input “Hedbanz cards” in your search query on Google. So have a little fun in therapy, while your students learn something valuable in the process and play Hedbanz today!

Related Smart Speech Therapy Resources:


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Early Intervention Evaluations PART II: Assessing Suspected Motor Speech Disorders in Children Under 3

In my previous post on this topic, I brought up concerns regarding the paucity of useful information in EI SLP reports for children under 3 years of age and made some constructive suggestions of how that could be rectified. In 2013, I had written about another significant concern, which involved neurodevelopmental pediatricians (rather than SLPs), diagnosing Childhood Apraxia of Speech (CAS), without the adequate level of training and knowledge regarding motor speech disorders. Today, I wanted to combine both topics and delve deeper into another area of EI SLP evaluations, namely, assessments of toddlers with suspected motor speech disorders.

Firstly, it is important to note that CAS is disturbingly overdiagnosed. A cursory review of both parent and professional social media forums quickly reveals that this diagnosis is doled out like candy by both SLPs and medical professionals alike, often without much training and knowledge regarding the disorder in question.   The child is under 3, has a limited verbal output coupled with a number of phonological processes,  and the next thing you know,  s/he is labeled as having Childhood Apraxia of Speech (CAS).  But is this diagnosis truly that straightforward?

Let us begin with the fact that all reputable organizations involved in the dissemination of information on the topic of CAS (e.g., ASHA, CASANA, etc.), strongly discourage the diagnosis of CAS in children under three years of age with limited verbal output,  and limited time spent in EBP therapy specifically targeting the remediation of motor speech disorders.

Assessment of motor speech disorders in young children requires solid knowledge and expertise. That is because CAS has a number of overlapping symptoms with other speech sound disorders (e.g., severe phonological disorder, dysarthria, etc). Furthermore, symptoms which may initially appear as CAS may change during the course of intervention by the time the child is older (e.g., 3 years of age) which is why diagnosing toddlers under 3 years of age is very problematic and the use of  “suspected” or “working” diagnosis is recommended (Davis & Velleman, 2000) in order to avoid misdiagnosis. Finally, the diagnosis of CAS is also problematic due to the fact that there are still to this day no valid or reliable standardized assessments sensitive to CAS detection (McCauley & Strand, 2008).

In March 2017, Dr. Edythe Strand wrote an excellent article for the ASHA Leader entitled: “Appraising Apraxia“, in which she used a case study of a 3-year-old boy to describe how a differential diagnosis for CAS can be performed. She reviewed CAS characteristics, informal assessment protocols, aspects of diagnosis and treatment, and even included ‘Examples of Diagnostic Statements for CAS’ (which illustrate how clinicians can formulate their impressions regarding the child’s strengths and needs without explicitly labeling the child’s diagnosis as CAS).

Today, I’d like to share what information I tend to include in speech-language reports geared towards the assessing motor speech disorders in children under 3 years of age. I have a specific former client in mind for whom a differential diagnosis was particularly needed. Here’s why.

This particular 30-month client, TQ, (I did mention that I get quite a few clients for assessment around that age), was brought in due to parental concerns over her significantly reduced speech and expressive language abilities characterized by unintelligible “babbling-like” utterances and lack of expressive language.  All of TQ’s developmental milestones with the exception of speech and language had been achieved grossly at age expectancy. She began limitedly producing word approximations at ~16 months of age but at 30 months of age, her verbal output was still very restricted. She mainly communicated via gestures, pointing, word approximations, and a handful of signs.

Interestingly, as an infant, she had a restricted lingual frenulum.  However, since it did not affect her ability to feed, no surgical intervention was needed. Indeed, TQ presented with an adequate lingual movement for both feeding and speech sound production, so her ankyloglossia (or anterior tongue tie) was definitely not the culprit which caused her to have limited speech production.

Prior to being reevaluated by me, TQ underwent an early intervention assessment at ~26 months of age. She was diagnosed with CAS by an evaluating SLP and was found to be eligible for speech-language services, which she began receiving shortly thereafter. However, Mrs. Q noted that TQ was making very few gains in therapy and her treating SLP was uncertain regarding why her progress in therapy was so limited. Mrs. Q was also rather uncertain that TQ’s diagnosis of CAS was indeed a correct one, which was another reason why she sought a second opinion.

Assessment of TQ’s social-emotional functioning, play skills, and receptive language  (via a combination of Westby, 1980, REEL-3, & PLS-5) quickly revealed that she was a very bright little girl who was developing on target in all of the tested areas. Assessment of TQ’s expressive language (via REEL-3, PLS-5 & LUI*), revealed profoundly impaired, expressive language abilities.  But due to which cause?

Despite lacking verbal speech, TQ’s communicative frequency (how often she attempted to spontaneously and appropriately initiate interactions with others), as well as her communicative intent (e.g., gaining attention, making requests, indicating protests, etc), were judged to be appropriate for her age. She was highly receptive to language stimulation given tangible reinforcements and as the assessment progressed she was observed to significantly increase the number and variety of vocalizations and word approximations including delayed imitation of words and sounds containing bilabial and alveolar nasal phonemes.  

For the purpose of TQ’s speech assessment, I was interested in gaining knowledge regarding the following:

  • Automatic vs. volitional control
  • Simple vs. complex speech production
  • Consistency of productions on repetitions of the same words/word approximations
  • Vowel Productions
  • Imitation abilities
  • Prosody
  • Phonetic inventory
  • Phonotactic Constraints
  • Stimulability

TQ’s oral peripheral examination yielded no difficulties with oral movements during non-speaking as well as speaking tasks. She was able to blow bubbles, stick out tongue, smile, etc as well as spontaneously vocalize without any difficulties. Her voice quality, pitch, loudness, and resonance during vocalizations and approximated utterances were judged to be appropriate for age and gender.  Her prosody and fluency could not be determined due to lack of spontaneously produced continuous verbal output.

  1. Phonetic inventory of all the sounds TQ produced during the assessment is as follows:
    • Consonants:  plosive nasals (/m/) and alveolars (/t/, /d/, n), as well as a glide (/w/)
    • Vowels: (/a/, /e/, /i/, /o/)
  2. TQ’s phonotactic repertoire was primarily comprised of word approximations restricted to specific sounds and consisted of CV (e.g., ne), VCV (e.g., ada), CVC (e.g., nyam), CVCV (e.g., nada), VCVC (e.g., adat), CVCVCV (nadadi), VCVCV(e.g., adada) syllable shapes
  3. TQ’s speech intelligibility in known and unknown contexts was profoundly reduced to unfamiliar listeners. However, her word approximations were consistent across all productions.
  4. Due to the above I could not perform an in-depth phonological processes analysis

However, by this time I had already formulated a working hypothesis regarding TQ’s speech production difficulties. Based on her speech sound assessment TQ presented with severe phonological disorder characterized by restricted sound inventory, simplification of sound sequences, as well as patterns of sound use errors (e.g., predominance of alveolar /d/ and nasal /n/ sounds when attempting to produce most word approximations) in speech (Stoel-Gammon, 1987).

TQ’s difficulties were not consistent with the diagnosis Childhood Apraxia of Speech (CAS) at that time due to the following:

  • Adequate and varied production of vowels
  • Lack of restricted use of syllables during verbalizations (TQ was observed to make verbalizations up to 3 syllables in length)
  • Lack of disruptions in rate, rhythm, and stress of speech
  • Frequent and spontaneous use of consistently produced verbalizations
  • Lack of verbal groping behaviors when producing word-approximations
  • Good control of pitch, loudness and vocal quality during vocalizations

I felt that the diagnosis of CAS was not applicable because TQ lacked a verbal lexicon and no specific phonological intervention techniques had been trialed with her during the course of her brief therapy (~4 months) to elicit word productions (Davis & Velleman, 2000; Strand, 2003). While her EI speech therapist documented that therapy has primarily focused on ‘oral motor activities to increase TQ’s awareness of her articulators and to increase imitation of oral motor movements’, I knew that until a variety of phonological/motor-speech specific interventions had been trialed over a period of time (at least ~6 months as per Davis & Velleman, 2000) the diagnosis of CAS could not be reliably made.

I still, however, wanted to be cautious as there were a few red flags I had noted which may have potentially indicative of a non-CAS motor speech involvement, due to which I wanted to include some recommendations pertaining to motor speech remediation.

Now it is possible that after 6 months of intensive application of EBP phonological and motor speech approaches TQ would have turned 3 and still presented with highly restricted speech sound inventory and profoundly impaired speech production, making her eligible for the diagnosis of CAS in earnest.  However,  at the time of my assessment,  making such diagnosis in view of all the available evidence would have been both clinically inappropriate and unethical.

So what were my recommendations you may ask? Well, I provisionally diagnosed TQ with a severe phonological disorder and recommended that among a variety of phonologically-based approaches to trial, an EBP approach to the treatment of motor speech disorders be also used with her for a period of 6 months to determine if it would expedite speech gains.

*For those of you who are interested in the latest EBP treatment for motor speech disorders, current evidence supports the use of the Rapid Syllable Transition Treatment (ReST). ReST is a free EBP treatment developed by the SLPs at the University of Sydney, which uses nonsense words, designed to help children coordinate movements across syllables in long words and phrases as well as helps them learn new speech movements. It is, however, important to note for young children with highly restricted sound inventories, characterized by a lack of syllable production, ReST will not be applicable. For them, the Integral Stimulation/Dynamic Temporal and Tactile Cueing (DTTC) approaches do have some limited empirical support.

I also made sure to make a note in my report regarding the inappropriate use of non-speech oral motor exercises (NSOMEs) in therapy, indicating that there is NO research to support the use of NSOMEs to stimulate speech production (Lof, 2010).

In addition to the trialing of phonological and motor based approaches I also emphasized the need to establish consistent lexicon via development of functional words needed in daily communication and listed a number of examples across several categories. I made recommendations regarding select approaches and treatment techniques to trial in therapy,  as well as suggestions for expansion of sounds and structures. Finally, I made suggestions for long and short term therapy goals for a period of 6 months to trial with TQ in therapy and provided relevant references to support the claims I’ve made in my report.

You may be interested in knowing that nowadays TQ is doing quite well, and at this juncture, she is still, ineligible for the diagnosis CAS (although she needs careful ongoing monitoring with respect to the development of reading difficulties when she is older).

Now I know that some clinicians will be quick to ask me: “What’s the harm in overdiagnosing CAS if the child’s speech production will still be treated via the application of motor speech production principles?” Well, aside from the fact that it’s obviously unethical and can result in terrifying the parents into obtaining all sorts of questionable and even downright harmful bunk treatments for their children,  the treatment may only be limitedly appropriate, and may not result in the best possible outcomes for a particular child. To illustrate, TQ never presented with CAS and as such, while she may have initially limitedly benefited from the application of motor speech principles to address her speech production, shortly thereafter, the application of the principles of the dynamic systems theory is what brought about significant changes in her phonological repertoire.

That is why the correct diagnosis is so important for young children under 3 years of age. But before it can be made, extensive (reputable and evidence supported) training and education are needed by evaluating SLPs on the assessment and treatment of motor speech disorders in young children.


  1. Davis, B & Velleman, S (2000). Differential diagnosis and treatment of developmental apraxia of speech in infants and toddlers”. The Transdisciplinary Journal. 10 (3): 177 – 192.
  2. Lof, G., & Watson, M. (2010). Five reasons why nonspeech oral-motor exercises do not work. Perspectives on School-Based Issues, 11.109-117.
  3. McCauley RJ, Strand EA. (2008). A Review of Standardized Tests of Nonverbal Oral and Speech Motor Performance in Children. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 17,81-91.
  4. McCauley R.J., Strand E., Lof, G.L., Schooling T. & Frymark, T. (2009). Evidence-Based Systematic Review: Effects of Nonspeech Oral Motor Exercises on Speech, American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 18, 343-360.
  5. Murray, E., McCabe, P. & Ballard, K.J. (2015). A Randomized Control Trial of Treatments for Childhood Apraxia of Speech. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research 58 (3) 669-686.
  6. Stoel-Gammon, C. (1987). Phonological skills of 2-year-olds. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 18, 323-329.
  7. Strand, E (2003). Childhood apraxia of speech: suggested diagnostic markers for the young child. In Shriberg, L & Campbell, T (Eds) Proceedings of the 2002 childhood apraxia of speech research symposium. Carlsbad, CA: Hendrix Foundation.
  8. Strand, E, McCauley, R, Weigand, S, Stoeckel, R & Baas, B (2013) A Motor Speech Assessment for Children with Severe Speech Disorders: Reliability and Validity Evidence. Journal of Speech Language and Hearing Research, vol 56; 505-520.
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Early Intervention Evaluations PART I: Assessing 2.5 year olds

Today, I’d  like to talk about speech and language assessments of children under three years of age.  Namely, the quality of these assessments.   Let me be frank,  I  am not happy with what I am seeing.  Often times,  when I receive a speech-language report on a child under three years of age,  I am struck by how little functional information it contains about the child’s  linguistic strengths and weaknesses.  Indeed,  conversations with parents often reveal that at best the examiner spent no more than half an hour or so playing with the child and performed very limited functional testing of their actual abilities.   Instead, they interviewed the parent and based their report on parental feedback alone.   Consequently, parents often end up with a report of very limited value,  which does not contain any helpful information on how delayed is the child as compared to peers their age.

So today I like to talk about what information should such speech-language reports should contain.   For the purpose of this particular post,  I will choose a particular developmental age at which children at risk of language delay are often assessed by speech-language pathologists. Below you will find what information I typically like to include in these reports as well as developmental milestones for children 30 months or 2.5 years of age.

Why 30 months, you may ask?   Well, there isn’t really any hard science to it. It’s just that I noticed that a significant percentage of parents who were already worried about their children’s speech-language abilities when they were younger, begin to act upon those worries as the child is nearing 3 years of age and their abilities are not improving or are not commensurate with other peers their age.

So here is the information I include in such reports (after I’ve gathered pertinent background information in the form of relevant intakes and questionnaires, of course).  Naturally, detailed BACKGROUND HISTORY section is a must! Prenatal, perinatal, and postnatal development should be prominently featured there.   All pertinent medical history needs to get documented as well as all of the child’s developmental milestones in the areas of cognition,  emotional development, fine and gross motor function, and of course speech and language.  Here,  I also include a family history of red flags: international or domestic adoption of the child (if relevant) as well as familial speech and language difficulties, intellectual impairment, psychiatric disorders, special education placements, or documented deficits in the areas of literacy (e.g., reading, writing, and spelling). After all, if any of the above issues are present in isolation or in combination, the risk for language and literacy deficits increases exponentially, and services are strongly merited for the child in question.

For bilingual children,  the next section will cover LANGUAGE BACKGROUND AND USE.  Here, I describe how many and which languages are spoken in the home and how well does the child understand and speak any or all of these languages (as per parental report based on questionnaires).

After that,  I  move on to describe the child’s ADAPTIVE BEHAVIOR during the assessment.  In this section, I cover emotional relatedness, joint attention, social referencing,  attention skills, communicative frequency, communicative intent,  communicative functions, as well as any and all unusual behaviors noted during the therapy session (e.g., refusal, tantrums, perseverations, echolalia, etc.) Then I move on to PLAY SKILLS.  For the purpose of play assessment, I use the Westby Playscale (1980).  In this section,  I describe where the child is presently with respect to play skills,  and where they actually need to be developmentally (excerpt below).

During today’s assessment, LS’s play skills were judged to be significantly reduced for his age. A child of LS’s age (30 months) is expected to engage in a number of isolated pretend play activities with realistic props to represent daily experiences (playing house) as well as less frequently experienced events (e.g., reenacting a doctor’s visit, etc.) (corresponds to Stage VI on the Westby Play Scale, Westby, 1980). Contrastingly, LS presented with limited repertoire routines, which were characterized primarily by exploration of toys, such as operating simple cause and effect toys (given modeling) or taking out and then putting back in playhouse toys.  LS’s parents confirmed that the above play schemas were representative of play interactions at home as well. Today’s LS’s play skills were judged to be approximately at Stage II (13 – 17 months) on the Westby Play Scale, (Westby, 1980) which is significantly reduced for a child of  LS’s age, since it is almost approximately ±15 months behind his peers. Thus, based on today’s play assessment, LS’s play skills require therapeutic intervention. “


Now, it’s finally time to get to the ‘meat and potatoes’ of the report ARTICULATION AND PHONOLOGY as well as RECEPTIVE and EXPRESSIVE LANGUAGE (more on PRAGMATIC ASSESSMENT in another post).

First, here’s what I include in the ARTICULATION AND PHONOLOGY section of the report.

  1. Phonetic inventory: all the sounds the child is currently producing including (short excerpt below):
    • Consonants:  plosive (/p/, /b/, /m/), alveolar (/t/, /d/), velar (/k/, /g/), glide (/w/), nasal (/n/, /m/) glottal (/h/)
    • Vowels and diphthongs: ( /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/, /ou/, /ai/)
  2. Phonotactic repertoire: What type of words comprised of how many syllables and which consonant-vowel variations the child is producing (excerpt below)
    • LS primarily produced one syllable words consisting of CV (e.g., ke, di), CVC (e.g., boom), VCV (e.g., apo) syllable shapes, which is reduced for a child his age. 
  3. Speech intelligibility in known and unknown contexts
  4. Phonological processes analysis

Now that I have described what the child is capable of speech-wise,  I discuss where the child needs to be developmentally:

“A child of LS’s age (30 months) is expected to produce additional consonants in initial word position (k, l, s, h), some consonants (t, d, m, n, s, z) in final word position (Watson & Scukanec, 1997b), several consonant clusters (pw, bw, -nd, -ts) (Stoel-Gammon, 1987) as well as evidence a more sophisticated syllable shape structure (e.g., CVCVC)   Furthermore, a 30 month old child is expected to begin monitoring and repairing own utterances, adjusting speech to different listeners, as well as practicing sounds, words, and early sentences (Clark, adapted by Owens, 1996, p. 386) all of which LS is not performing at this time.  Based on above developmental norms, LS’s phonological abilities are judged to be significantly below age-expectancy at this time. Therapy is recommended in order to improve LS’s phonological skills.”

At this point, I am ready to move on to the language portion of the assessment.   Here it is important to note that a number of assessments for toddlers under 3 years of age contain numerous limitations. Some such as REEL-3 or Rosetti (a criterion-referenced vs. normed-referenced instrument) are observational or limitedly interactive in nature, while others such as PLS-5,  have a tendency to over inflate scores,  resulting in a significant number of children not qualifying for rightfully deserved speech-language therapy services.  This is exactly why it’s so important that SLPs have a firm knowledge of developmental milestones!  After all,  after they finish describing what the child is capable of,  they then need to describe what the developmental expectations are for a child this age (excerpts below).


LS’s receptive language abilities were judged to be scattered between 11-17 months of age (as per clinical observations as well as informal PLS-5 and REEL-3 findings), which is also consistent with his play skills abilities (see above).  During the assessment LS was able to appropriately understand prohibitive verbalizations (e.g., “No”, “Stop”), follow simple 1 part directions (when repeated and combined with gestures), selectively attend to speaker when his name was spoken (behavioral), perform a routine activity upon request (when combined with gestures), retrieve familiar objects from nearby (when provided with gestures), identify several major body parts (with prompting) on a doll only, select a familiar object when named given repeated prompting, point to pictures of familiar objects in books when named by adult, as well as respond to yes/no questions by using head shakes and head nods. This is significantly below age-expectancy.

A typically developing child 30 months of age is expected to spontaneously follow (without gestures, cues or prompts) 2+ step directives, follow select commands that require getting objects out of sight, answer simple “wh” questions (what, where, who), understand select spatial concepts, (in, off, out of, etc), understand select pronouns (e.g., me, my, your), identify action words in pictures, understand concept sizes (‘big’, ‘little’), identify simple objects according to their function, identify select clothing items such as shoes, shirt, pants, hat (on self or caregiver) as well as understand names of farm animals, everyday foods, and toys. Therapeutic intervention is recommended in order to increase LS’s receptive language abilities.


During today’s assessment, LS’s expressive language skills were judged to be scattered between 10-15 months of age (as per clinical observations as well as informal PLS-5 and REEL-3 findings). LS was observed to communicate primarily via proto-imperative gestures (requesting and object via eye gaze, reaching) as well as proto-declarative gestures (showing an object via eye gaze, reaching, and pointing). Additionally, LS communicated via vocalizations, head nods, and head shakes.  According to parental report, at this time LS’s speaking vocabulary consists of approximately 15-20 words (see word lists below).  During the assessment LS was observed to spontaneously produce a number of these words when looking at a picture book, playing with toys, and participating in action based play activities with Mrs. S and clinician.  LS was also observed to produce a number of animal sounds when looking at select picture books and puzzles.  For therapy planning purposes, it is important to note that LS was observed to imitate more sounds and words, when they were supported by action based play activities (when words and sounds were accompanied by a movement initiated by clinician and then imitated by LS). Today LS was observed to primarily communicate via a very limited number of imitated and spontaneous one word utterances that labeled basic objects and pictures in his environment, which is significantly reduced for his age.

A typically developing child of LS’s chronological age (30 months) is expected to possess a minimum vocabulary of 200+ words (Rescorla, 1989), produce 2-4 word utterance combinations (e.g., noun + verb, verb + noun + location, verb + noun + adjective, etc), in addition to asking 2-3 word questions as well as maintaining a topic for 2+ conversational turns. Therapeutic intervention is recommended in order to increase LS’s expressive language abilities.”

Here you have a few speech-language evaluation excerpts which describe not just what the child is capable of but where the child needs to be developmentally.   Now it’s just a matter of summarizing my IMPRESSIONS (child’s strengths and needs), RECOMMENDATIONS as well as SUGGESTED (long and short term) THERAPY GOALS.  Now the parents have some understanding regarding their child’s  strengths and needs.   From here,  they can also track their child’s progress in therapy as they now have some idea to what it can be compared to.

Now I know that many of you will tell me,  that this is a ‘perfect world’ evaluation conducted by a private therapist with an unlimited amount of time on her hands.   And to some extent, many of you will be right! Yes,  such an evaluation was a result of more than 30 minutes spent face-to-face with the child.  All in all, it took probably closer to 90 minutes of face to face time to complete it and a few hours to write.   And yes,  this is a luxury only a few possess and many therapists in the early intervention system lack.  But in the long run, such evaluations pay dividends not only, obviously, to your clients but to SLPs who perform them.  They enhance and grow your reputation as an evaluating therapist. They even make sense from a business perspective.  If you are well-known and highly sought after due to your evaluating expertise, you can expect to be compensated for your time, accordingly. This means that if you decide that your time and expertise are worth private pay only (due to poor insurance reimbursement or low EI rates), you can be sure that parents will learn to appreciate your thoroughness and will choose you over other providers.

So, how about it? Can you give it a try? Trust me, it’s worth it!

Selected References:

  • Owens, R. E. (1996). Language development: An introduction (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Rescorla, L. (1989). The Language Development Survey: A screening tool for delayed language in toddlers. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 54, 587–599.
  • Selby, J. C., Robb, M. P., & Gilbert, H. R. (2000). Normal vowel articulations between 15 and 36 months of age. Clinical Linguistics and Phonetics, 14, 255-266.
  • Stoel-Gammon, C. (1987). Phonological skills of 2-year-olds. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 18, 323-329.
  • Watson, M. M., & Scukanec, G. P. (1997b). Profiling the phonological abilities of 2-year-olds: A longitudinal investigation. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 13, 3-14.

For more information on EI Assessments click on any of the below posts:

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Treatment of Children with “APD”: What SLPs Need to Know

Free stock photo of people, woman, cute, playingIn recent years there has been an increase in research on the subject of diagnosis and treatment of Auditory Processing Disorders (APD), formerly known as Central Auditory Processing Disorders or CAPD.

More and more studies in the fields of audiology and speech-language pathology began confirming the lack of validity of APD as a standalone (or useful) diagnosis. To illustrate, in June 2015, the American Journal of Audiology published an article by David DeBonis entitled: “It Is Time to Rethink Central Auditory Processing Disorder Protocols for School-Aged Children.” In this article, DeBonis pointed out numerous inconsistencies involved in APD testing and concluded that “routine use of APD test protocols cannot be supported” and that [APD] “intervention needs to be contextualized and functional” (DeBonis, 2015, p. 124)

Image result for time to rethink quotesFurthermore, in April 2017, an article entitled: “AAA (2010) CAPD clinical practice guidelines: need for an update” (also written by DeBonnis) concluded that the “AAA CAPD guidance document will need to be updated and re-conceptualised in order to provide meaningful guidance for clinicians” due to the fact that the “AAA document … does not reflect the current literature, fails to help clinicians understand for whom auditory processing testing and intervention would be most useful, includes contradictory suggestions which reduce clarity and appears to avoid conclusions that might cast the CAPD construct in a negative light. It also does not include input from diverse affected groups. All of these reduce the document’s credibility.” 

Image result for systematic reviewIn April 2016, de Wit and colleagues published a systematic review in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing ResearchThey reviewed research studies which described the characteristics of APD in children to determine whether these characteristics merited a label of a distinct clinical disorder vs. being representative of other disorders.  After a search of 6 databases, they chose 48 studies which satisfied appropriate inclusion criteria. Unfortunately, they unearthed only one study with strong methodological quality. Even more disappointing was that the children in these studies presented with incredibly diverse symptomology. The authors concluded that “The listening difficulties of children with APD may be a consequence of cognitive, language, and attention issues rather than bottom-up auditory processing” (de Wit et al., 2016, p. 384).  In other words, none of the reviewed studies had conclusively proven that APD was a distinct clinical disorder.  Instead, these studies showed that the children diagnosed with APD exhibited language-based deficits. In other words, the diagnosis of APD did not reveal any new information regarding the child beyond the fact that s/he is in great need of a comprehensive language assessment in order to determine which language-based interventions s/he would optimally benefit from.

Now, it is important to reiterate that students diagnosed with “APD” present with legitimate symptomology (e.g., difficulty processing language, difficulty organizing narratives, difficulty decoding text, etc.). However, all the research to date indicates that these symptoms are indicative of broader language-based deficits, which require targeted language/literacy-based interventions rather than recommendations for specific prescriptive programs (e.g., CAPDOTS, Fast ForWord, etc.) or mere in-school accommodations.

Image result for dig deeper quotesUnfortunately, on numerous occasions when the students do receive the diagnosis of APDthe testing does not “dig further,” which leads to many of them not receiving appropriate comprehensive language-literacy assessments.  Furthermore, APD then becomes the “primary” diagnosis for the student, which places SLPs in situations in which they must address inappropriate therapeutic targets based on an audiologist’s recommendations.  Even worse, in many of these situations, the diagnosis of APD limits the provision of appropriate language-based services to the student.

Since the APD controversy has been going on for years with no end in sight despite the mounting evidence pointing to the lack of its validity, we know that SLPs will continue to have students on their caseloads diagnosed with APD. Thus, the aim of today’s post is to offer some constructive suggestions for SLPs who are asked to assess and treat students with “confirmed” or suspected APD.

The first suggestion comes directly from Dr. Alan Kamhi, who states: “Do not assume that a child who has been diagnosed with APD needs to be treated any differently than children who have been diagnosed with language and learning disabilities” (Kamhi, 2011, p. 270).  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 (language domain).

If a student with confirmed or suspected APD is referred to an SLP, it is important, to begin with formal and informal assessments of language and literacy knowledge and skills. (details HERE)   SLPs need to “consider non-auditory reasons for listening and comprehension difficulties, such as limitations in working memory, language knowledge, conceptual abilities, attention, and motivation (Kamhi & Wallach, 2012).

Image result for language goalsAfter performing a comprehensive assessment, SLPs need to formulate language goals based on determined areas of weaknesses. Please note that a systematic review by Fey and colleagues (2011) 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. As such it’s important to avoid formulating goals focused on targeting isolated processing abilities like auditory discrimination, auditory sequencing, recognizing speech in noise, etc., because these processing abilities have not been shown to improve language and literacy skills (Fey et al., 2011; Kamhi, 2011).

Instead, SLPs need to target we need to focus on the language underpinnings of the above skills and turn them into language and literacy goals. For example, if the child has difficulty recognizing speech in noise, improve the child’s knowledge and access to specific vocabulary words.  This will help the child detect the word when the auditory information is degraded.  Child presents with phonemic awareness deficits? Figure out where in the hierarchy of phonemic awareness their strengths and weaknesses lie and formulate goals based on the remaining areas in need of mastery.  Received a description of the child’s deficits from the audiologist in an accompanying report? Turn them into language goals as well!  Turn “prosodic deficits” or difficulty understanding the intent of verbal messages into “listening for details and main ideas in stories” goals.   In other words, figure out the language correlate to the ‘auditory processing’ deficit and replace it.

Image result for quackeryIt is easy to understand the appeal of using dubious practices which promise a quick fix for our student’s “APD deficits” instead of labor-intensive language therapy sessions. But one must also keep something else in mind as well:   Acquiring higher order language abilities takes a significant period of time, especially for those students whose skills and abilities are significantly below age-matched peers.

APD Summary 

  1. There is still no compelling evidence that APD is a stand-alone diagnosis with clear diagnostic criteria.
  2. There is still no compelling evidence that auditory deficits are a “significant risk factor for  language or academic performance.”
  3. There is still no compelling evidence that “auditory interventions provide any unique benefit to auditory, language, or academic outcomes” (Hazan, Messaoud-Galusi, Rosan, Nouwens, & Shakespeare, 2009; Watson & Kidd, 2009).
  4. APD deficits are language based deficits which accompany a host of developmental conditions ranging from developmental language disorders to learning disabilities, etc.
  5. SLPs should perform comprehensive language and literacy assessments of children diagnosed with APD.
  6. SLPs should target   literacy goals.
  7. SLPS should be wary of any goals or recommendations which focus on remediation of isolated skills such as: “auditory discrimination, auditory sequencing, phonological memory, working memory, or rapid serial naming” since studies have definitively confirmed their lack of effectiveness (Fey et al., 2011).
  8. SLPs should be wary of any prescriptive programs offering APD “interventions” and instead focus on improving children’s abilities for functional communication including listening, speaking, reading, and writing (see Wallach, 2014: Improving Clinical Practice: A School-Age and School-Based Perspective).  This article  “presents a conceptual framework for intervention at school-age levels” and discusses “advanced levels of language that move beyond preschool and early elementary grade goals and objectives with a focus on comprehension and meta-abilities.”

There you have it!  Students diagnosed with APD are best served by targeting the language and literacy problems that are affecting their performance in school. 

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The End of See it, Zap it! Ankyloglossia (Tongue-Tie) Controversies in Research and Clinical Practice

Today it is my pleasure and privilege to interview 3 Australian lactation consultations: Lois Wattis, Renee Kam, and Pamela Douglas, the authors of a March 2017 article in the Breastfeeding Review: “Three experienced lactation consultants reflect upon the oral tie phenomenon” (which can be found HERE).

Tatyana Elleseff: Colleagues, as you very well know, the subject of ankyloglossia or tongue tie affecting breastfeeding and speech production has risen into significant prominence in the past several years. Numerous journal articles, blog posts, as well as social media forums have been discussing this phenomenon with rather conflicting recommendations.  Many health professionals and parents are convinced that “releasing the tie” or performing either a frenotomy or frenectomy will lead to significant improvements in speech and feeding.

Image result for evidence based practicePresently, systematic reviews1-3 demonstrate there is insufficient evidence for the above. However, when many professionals including myself, cite reputable research explaining the lack of support of surgical intervention for tongue tie, there has been a pushback on the part of a number of other health professionals including lactation consultants, nurses, dentists, as well as speech-language pathologists stating that in their clinical experience surgical intervention does resolve issues with tongue tie as related to speech and feeding.

So today, given your 33 combined years of practice as lactation consultants I would love to ask your some questions regarding the tongue tie phenomena.

I would like to begin our discussion with a description of normal breastfeeding and what can interfere with it from an anatomical and physiological standpoint for mothers and babies.

Now, many of this blog’s readers already know that a tongue tie occurs when the connective tissue under the tongue known as a lingual frenulum restricts tongue movement to some degree and adversely affects its function.  But many may not realize that children can present with a normal anatomical variant of “ties” which can be completely asymptomatic. Can you please address that?

Lois Wattis:  “Normal” breastfeeding takes time and skill to achieve. The breastfeeding dyad is multifactorial, influenced by maternal breast and nipple anatomy combined with the infant’s facial and oral structures, all of which are highly variable. Mothers who have successfully breastfed the first baby may encounter problems with subsequent babies due to size (e.g., smaller, larger, etc.), be compromised by birth interventions or drugs during labor, or incur birth injuries – all of which can affect the initiation of breastfeeding and progression to a happy and comfortable feeding relationship. Unfortunately, the overview of each dyad’s story can be lost when tunnel vision of either health provider or parents regarding the baby’s oral anatomy is believed to be the chief influencer of breastfeeding success or failure.

Tatyana Elleseff: Colleagues, what do we know regarding the true prevalence of various ‘tongue ties’? Are there any studies of good quality?

Image result for prevalencePamela Douglas:  In a literature review in 2005, Hall and Renfrew acknowledged that the true prevalence of ankyloglossia remained unknown, though they estimated 3-4% of newborns.4

After 2005, once the diagnosis of posterior tongue-tie (PTT) had been introduced,5, 6 attempts to quantify incidence of tongue-tie have remained of very poor quality, but estimates currently rest at between 4-10%.7

The problem is that there is a lack of definitional clarity concerning the diagnosis of PTT. Consequently, anterior or classic tongue tie CTT is now often conflated with PTT simply as ‘tongue-tie’ (TT).    

Tatyana Elleseff: Thank you for clarifying it.  In addition to the anterior and posterior tongue tie labels, many parents and professionals also frequently hear the terms lip tie and buccal ties. Is there’s reputable research behind these terms indicating that these ties can truly impact speech and feeding?

Pamela Douglas:  Current definitions of ankyloglossia tend to confuse oral and tongue function (which is affected by multiple variables, and in particular by a fit and hold in breastfeeding) with structure (which is highly anatomically variable for both the tongue length and appearance and lingual and maxillary frenula).

For my own purposes, I define CTT as Type 1 and 2 on the Coryllos-Genna-Watson scale.8 In clinical practice, I also find it useful to rate the anterior membrane by the percentage of the undersurface of the tongue into which the membrane connects, applying the first two categories of the Griffiths Classification System.9 

There is a wide spectrum of lingual frenula morphologies and elasticities, and deciding where to draw a line between a normal variant and CTT will depend on the clinical judgment concerning the infant’s capacity for pain-free efficient milk transfer. However, that means we need to have an approach to fit and hold that we are confident does optimize pain-free efficient milk transfer and at the moment, research shows that not only do the old ‘hands on’ approach to fit and hold not work, but that baby-led attachment is also not enough for many women. This is why at the Possums Clinic we’ve been working on developing an approach to fit and hold (gestalt breastfeeding) that builds on baby-led attachment but also integrates the findings of the latest ultrasound studies.

I personally don’t find the diagnoses of posterior tongue tie PTT and upper lip tie ULT helpful, and don’t use them. Lois, Renee and myself find that a wide spectrum of normal anatomic lingual and maxillary frenula variants are currently being misdiagnosed as a PTT and ULT, which has worried us and led Lois to initiate the article with Renee.

Tatyana Elleseff: Segueing from the above question: is there an established criterion based upon which a decision is made by relevant professionals to “release” the tie and if so can you explain how it’s determined?

Image result for release tongue tieLois Wattis: When an anterior frenulum is attached at the tongue tip or nearby and is short enough to cause restriction of lift towards the palate, usually associated with extreme discomfort for the breastfeeding mother, I have no reservations about snipping it to release the tongue to enable optimal function for breastfeeding. If a simple frenotomy is going to assist the baby to breastfeed well it is worth doing, and as soon as possible. What I do encounter in my clinical practice are distressed and disempowered mothers whose baby has been labeled as having a posterior tongue tie and/or upper lip tie which is the cause of current and even future problems. Upon examination, the baby has completely normal oral anatomy and breastfeeding upskilling and confidence building of both mother and baby enables the dyad to go forward with strategies which address all elements of their unique story.

Although the Hazelbaker Assessment Tool for Lingual Frenulum Function (ATLFF) is a pioneering contribution, bringing us our first systematized approach to examination of the infant’s tongue and oral connective tissues, it is unreliable as a tool for decision-making concerning frenotomy.10-12 In practice many of the item criteria are highly subjective. Although one study found moderate inter-rater reliability on the ATLFF’s structural items, the authors did not find inter-rater reliability on most of the functional items.13 In my clinical experience, there is no reliable correlation between what the tongue is observed to do during oral examinations and what occurs during breastfeeding, other than in the case of classic tongue-tie (excluding congenital craniofacial abnormalities from this discussion.

In my practice as a Lactation Consultant in an acute hospital setting I use a combination of the available assessment tools mainly for documentation purposes, however, the most important tools I use are my eyes and my ears. Observing the mother and baby physical combination and interactions, and suggesting adjustments where indicated to the positioning and attachment technique used (which  Pam calls fit and hold) can very often resolve difficulties immediately – even if the baby also has an obvious frenulum under his/her tongue. Listening to the mother’s feedback, and observing the baby’s responses are primary indicators of whether further intervention is needed, or not. Watching how the baby achieves and retains the latch is key, then the examination of baby’s mouth to assess tongue mobility and appearance provide final information about whether baby’s ability to breastfeed comfortably is or is not being hindered by a restrictive lingual frenulum.

Tatyana Elleseff: So frenotomy is an incision (cut) of lingual frenum while frenectomy (complete removal) is an excision of lingual frenum.  Both can be performed via various methods of “release”. What effects on breastfeeding have you seen with respect to healing?

Lois Wattis:  The significant difference between both procedures involves the degree of invasiveness and level of pain experienced during and after the procedures, and the differing time it takes for the resumption and/or improvement in breastfeeding comfort and efficacy.

It is commonplace for a baby who has had a simple incision to breastfeed immediately after the procedure and exhibit no further signs of discomfort or oral aversion. Conversely, the baby who has had laser division(s) may breastfeed soon after the procedure while topical anesthetics are still working. However, many infants demonstrate discomfort, extreme pain responses and reluctance to feed for days or weeks following a  laser treatment.  Parents are warned to expect delays resuming feeding and the baby is usually also subjected to wound “stretches” for weeks following the laser treatments. Unfortunately, in my clinical practice I see many parents and babies who are very traumatized by this whole process, and in many cases, breastfeeding can be derailed either temporarily or permanently.

Image result for research studiesTatyana Elleseff: Thank you! This is highly relevant information for both health professionals and parents alike. I truly appreciate your clinical expertise on this topic. While we are on the topic of restrictive lingual frenulums can we discuss several recent articles published on surgical interventions for the above? For example (Ghaheri, Cole, Fausel, Chuop & Mace, 2016), recently published the result of their study which concluded that: “Surgical release of tongue-tie/lip-tie results in significant improvement in breastfeeding outcomes”.  Can you elucidate upon the study design and its findings?

Pamela Douglas:  Pre-post surveys, such as Ghaheri et al’s 2016 study, are notoriously methodologically weak and prone to interpretive bias.14 

Renee Kam:  Research about the efficacy of releasing ULTs to improve breastfeeding outcomes is seriously lacking. There is no reliable assessment tool for upper lip-tie and a lack of evidence to support the efficacy of a frenotomy of labial frenula in breastfed babies. The few studies which have included ULT release have either included very small numbers of babies having upper lip-tie releases or have included babies having a release upper lip ties and tongue ties at the same time, making it impossible to know if any improvements were due to the tongue-tie release, upper lip-tie release or both. Here, to answer your previous question, to date, no research has looked into the treatment of buccal ties for breastfeeding outcomes.

There are various classification scales for labial frenulums such as the Kotlow scale. The title of this scale is misleading as it contains the word ‘tie’. Hence it can give some people the incorrect assumption that a class III or IV labial frenulum is somehow a problem. What this scale actually shows is the normal range of insertion sites for a labial frenulum. And, in normal cases, the vast majority of babies’ labial frenulums insert low down on the upper gum (class III) or even wrap around it (class IV). It’s important to note that, for effective breastfeeding, the upper lip does not have to flange out in order to create a seal. It just has to rest in a neutral position — not flanged out, not tucked in.

Lois Wattis: I entirely agree with Renee’s view about the neutrality of the upper lip, including the labial frenulum, in relation to latch for breastfeeding. Even babies with asymmetrical facial features, cleft lips and other permanent and temporary anomalies only need to achieve a seal with the upper lip to breastfeed successfully.

Image resultTatyana Elleseff: Thank you for that. In addition to studies on tongue tie revisions and breastfeeding outcomes, there has been an increase in studies, specifically Kotlow (2016) and Siegel (2016), which claimed that surgical intervention improves outcomes for acid reflux and aerophagia in babies”.  Can you discuss these studies design and findings?

Renee Kam: The AIR hypothesis has led to reflux being used as another reason to diagnose the oral anatomic abnormalities in infants in the presence of breastfeeding problems. More research with objective indicators and less vested interest is needed in this area. A thorough understanding of normal infant behavior and feeding problems which aren’t tie related are also imperative before any conclusions about AIR can be reached.

Tatyana Elleseff: One final question, colleagues are you aware of any studies which describe long-term outcomes of surgical interventions for tongue ties?

Pamela Douglas:  The systematic reviews note that there is a lack of evidence demonstrating long-term outcomes of surgical interventions. 

Tatyana Elleseff: Thank you for such informative discussion, colleagues.

Related imageThere you have it, readers. Both research and clinical practice align to indicate that:

  • There’s significant normal variation when it comes to most anatomical structures including the frenulum
  • Just because a child presents with restricted frenulum does not automatically imply adverse feeding as well as speech outcomes and immediately necessitates a tongue tie release
  • When breastfeeding difficulties arise, in the presence of restricted frenulum, it is very important to involve an experienced lactation specialist who will perform a differential diagnosis in order to determine the source of the baby’s true breastfeeding difficulties

Now, I’d like to take a moment and address the myth of tongue ties affecting speech production,  which continues to persist among speech-language pathologists despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

For that purpose, I will use excerpts from an excellent ASHA Leader December 2005 article written by an esteemed Dr. Kummer who is certainly well qualified to discuss this issue. According to Dr. Kummer, “there is no empirical evidence in the literature that ankyloglossia typically causes speech defects. On the contrary, several authors, even from decades ago, have disputed the belief that there is a strong causal relationship (Wallace, 1963; Block, 1968; Catlin & De Haan, 1971; Wright, 1995; Agarwal & Raina, 2003).”

Related imageSince many children with restricted frenulum do not have any speech production difficulties, Dr Kummer explains why that is the case by discussing the effect of tongue tip positioning for speech production.

Lingual-alveolar sounds (t, d, n) are produced with the top of the tongue tip and therefore, they can be produced with very little tongue elevation or mobility.

The /s/ and /z/ sounds require the tongue tip to be elevated only slightly but can be produced with little distortion if the tip is down.

The most the tongue tip needs to elevate is to the alveolar ridge for the production of an /l/. However, this sound can actually be produced with the tongue tip down and the dorsum of the tongue up against the alveolar ridge. Even an /r/ sound can be produced with the tongue tip down as long as the back of the tongue is elevated on both sides.

The most the tongue needs to protrude is to the back of the maxillary incisors for the production of /th/. All of these sounds can usually be produced, even with significant tongue tip restriction. This can be tested by producing these sounds with the tongue tip pressed down or against the mandibular gingiva. This results in little, if any, distortion.” (Kummer, 2005, ASHA Leader)

In 2009, Dr. Sharynne McLeod, did research on electropalatography of speech sounds with adults. Her findings (below) which are coronal images of tongue positioning including bracing, lateral contact and groove formation for consonants support the above information provided by Dr. Kummer.

Once again research and clinical practice align to indicate that there’s insufficient evidence to indicate the effect of restricted frenulum on the production of speech sounds.

Finally, I would like to conclude this post with a list of links from recent systematic reviews summarizing the latest research on this topic.

Ankyloglossia/Tongue Tie Systematic Review Summaries to Date (2017):

  1. A small body of evidence suggests that frenotomy may be associated with mother reported improvements in breastfeeding, and potentially in nipple pain, but with small, short-term studies with inconsistent methodology, the strength of the evidence is low to insufficient.
  2. In an infant with tongue-tie and feeding difficulties, surgical release of the tongue-tie does not consistently improve infant feeding but is likely to improve maternal nipple pain. Further research is needed to clarify and confirm this effect.
  3. Data are currently insufficient for assessing the effects of frenotomy on nonbreastfeeding outcomes that may be associated with ankyloglossia
  4. Given the lack of good-quality studies and limitations in the measurement of outcomes, we considered the strength of the evidence for the effect of surgical interventions to improve speech and articulation to be insufficient.
  5. Large temporal increases and substantial spatial variations in ankyloglossia and frenotomy rates were observed that may indicate a diagnostic suspicion bias and increasing use of a potentially unnecessary surgical procedure among infants.


  1. Power R, Murphy J. Tongue-tie and frenotomy in infants with breastfeeding difficulties: achieving a balance. Archives of Disease in Childhood 2015;100:489-494.
  2. Francis DO, Krishnaswami S, McPheeters M. Treatment of ankyloglossia and breastfeeding outcomes: a systematic review. Pediatrics. 2015;135(6):e1467-e1474.
  3. O’Shea JE, Foster JP, O’Donnell CPF, Breathnach D, Jacobs SE, Todd DA, et al. Frenotomy for tongue-tie in newborn infants (Review). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2017 (3):Art. No.:CD011065.
  4. Hall D, Renfrew M. Tongue tie. Archives of Disease in Childhood. 2005;90:1211-1215.
  5. Coryllos E, Watson Genna C, Salloum A. Congenital tongue-tie and its impact on breastfeeding. Breastfeeding: Best for Mother and Baby, American Academy of Pediatrics. 2004 Summer:1-6.
  6. Coryllos EV, Watson Genna C, LeVan Fram J. Minimally Invasive Treatment for Posterior Tongue-Tie (The Hidden Tongue-Tie). In: Watson Genna C, editor. Supporting Sucking Skills. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning; 2013. p. 243-251.
  7. National Health and Medical Research Council. Infant feeding guidelines: information for health workers. In: Government A, editor. 2012. p.
  8. Watson Genna C, editor. Supporting sucking skills in breastfeeding infants. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning; 2016.
  9. Griffiths DM. Do tongue ties affect breastfeeding? . Journal of Human Lactation. 2004;20:411.
  10. Ricke L, Baker N, Madlon-Kay D. Newborn tongue-tie: prevalence and effect on breastfeeding. Journal of American Board of Family Practice. 2005;8:1-8.
  11. Madlon-Kay D, Ricke L, Baker N, DeFor TA. Case series of 148 tongue-tied newborn babies evaluated with the assessment tool for lingual function. Midwifery. 2008;24:353-357.
  12. Ballard JL, Auer CE, Khoury JC. Ankyloglossia: assessment, incidence, and effect of frenuloplasty on the breastfeeding dyad. Pediatrics. 2002;110:e63.
  13. Amir L, James JP, Donath SM. Reliability of the Hazelbaker Assessment Tool for Lingual Frenulum Function. International Breastfeeding Journal. 2006;1:3.
  14. Douglas PS. Conclusions of Ghaheri’s study that laser surgery for posterior tongue and lip ties improve breastfeeding are not substantiated. Breastfeeding Medicine. 2017;12(3):DOI: 10.1089/bfm.2017.0008.

Author Bios (in alphabetical order):

Dr. Pamela Douglas  is the founder of a charitable organization, the Possums Clinic, a general practitioner since 1987, an IBCLC (1994-2004; 2012-Present) and researcher. She is an Associate Professor (Adjunct) with the Centre for Health Practice Innovation, Griffith University, and a Senior Lecturer with the Discipline of General Practice, The University of Queensland. Pam enjoys working clinically with families across the spectrum of challenges in early life, many complex (including breastfeeding difficulty) unsettled infant behaviors, reflux, allergies, tongue-tie/oral connective tissue problems, and gut problems. She is author of The discontented little baby book: all you need to know about feeds, sleep and crying (UQP);

Renee Kam qualified with a Bachelor of Physiotherapy from the University of Melbourne in 2000. She then worked as a physiotherapist for 6 years, predominantly in the areas of women’s health, pediatric and musculoskeletal physiotherapy. She became an Australian Breastfeeding Association Breastfeeding (ABA) counselor in 2010 and obtained the credential of International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) in 2012. In 2013, Renee’s book, The Newborn Baby Manual, was published which covers the topics that Renee is passionate about; breastfeeding, baby sleep and baby behavior. These days, Renee spends most of her time being a mother to her two young daughters, writing breastfeeding content for, fulfilling her role as national breastfeeding information manager with ABA and working as an IBCLC in private practice and at a private hospital in Melbourne, Australia.

Lois Wattis is a Registered Nurse/Midwife, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and Fellow of the Australian College of Midwives. Working in both hospital and community settings, Lois has enhanced her midwifery skills and expertise by providing women-centred care to thousands of mothers and babies, including more than 50 women who chose to give birth at home. Lois’ qualifications include Bachelor of Nursing Degree (Edith Cowan University, Perth WA), Post Graduate Diploma in Clinical Nursing, Midwifery (Curtin University, Perth WA), accreditation as Independent Practising Midwife by the Australian College of Midwives in 2002 and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant in 2004. Lois was inducted as a Fellow of the Australian College of Midwives (FACM) in 2005 in recognition of her services to women and midwifery in Australia. Lois has authored numerous articles which have been published internationally in parenting and midwifery journals, and shares her broad experience via her creations “New Baby 101” book, smartphone App, on-line videos and Facebook page. Lois has worked for the past 10 years in Qld, Australia in a dedicated Lactation Consultant role as well as in private practice



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What do Narratives and Pediatric Psychiatric Impairments Have in Common?

High comorbidity between language and psychiatric disorders has been well documented (Beitchman, Cohen, Konstantaras, & Tannock, 1996; Cohen, Barwick, Horodezky, Vallence, & Im, 1998; Toppelberg & Shapiro, 2000). However, a lesser known fact is that there’s also a significant under-diagnosis of language impairments in children with psychiatric disorders.

In late 90’s, a study by Cohen, Barwick, Horodezky, Vallance, & Im (1998) found that 40% of children between the ages of 7 and 14 referred solely for psychiatric problems had a language impairment that had not been previously suspected.

Several decades later not much has changed. Hollo, Wehby, & Oliver (2014) did a meta-analysis of 22 studies, which reported results of language assessments in children with emotional and behavioral disturbances, EBD, with no prior history of language impairment (LI). They found that more than 80% of these children displayed below average language performance on standardized assessments (1–2 SD below the mean on a single measure) and 46.5% of these children qualified for criteria of moderate-severe LI (>2 SD below the mean on a single measure).

The above illustrates that children with psychiatric impairments often spend years “under the radar” without the recognition from medical and educational professionals that they present with difficulty adequately comprehending and expressing language. This is particularly damaging because good language development is critically important in order for psychotherapy and cognitive-behavioral therapies to be effective for the child. Without relevant speech-language intervention services, psychotherapy referrals are rendered virtually useless, since those children who lack adequate linguistic abilities would not make meaningful therapeutic gains even after spending years in psychotherapy.

Narrative abilities are “highly relevant for the child psychiatry population as means for both psychotherapeutic evaluation (Emde, Wolf, & Oppenheim, 2003) and intervention (Angus & McLeod, 2004; Chaika, 2000; Gardner, 1993)”.  That is why it is crucial that language impairments be “identified, taken into account, and remediated (Losh & Capps, 2003)” (Pearce, et al, 2014, p. 245).

Over a two-year period, Pearce and colleagues (2014) assessed 48 children, 6–12 years old who were admitted: “for a four-week diagnostic period to the Child Psychiatry Inpatient Unit in a children’s hospital”. The children selected for the study had a minimum IQ of 85, had passed a hearing test and did not present with any acute psychotic symptoms (e.g., delusions, hallucinations, etc.). The children were administered the core subtests of The Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals–4 (CELF-4) as well as the Test of Narrative Language (TNL).

Study results found that:

  1. “The mean scores for less complex core language production and comprehension were in the average range”, whereas the mean narrative-production scores on the TNL were in the clinical range. In other words: “These children perhaps had acquired foundational language skills sufficient for functional communication and produced verbal output at a rate and complexity not noticeably different from their peers, particularly with the overlay of social or emotional disturbance, yet had impaired discourse skills difficult to detect in the typical psychiatric interview, psychotherapy session, or classroom setting” (Pearce, et al, 2014, p. 253).
  2. The study also found a significant correlation between narratives and social skills (but not between core language and social skills). That is because, in contrast to general language tests, which assess basic constructs such as vocabulary and grammar and often require single word responses, storytelling involves a number of higher order skills such as sequencing, emotion processing, perspective taking, pragmatic presupposition, gauging the listener’s level of interest, etc., which children with psychiatric impairments understandably lack.
  3. Consequently, the authors concluded that: “More than half the children in our complex population not previously diagnosed with language impairment were identified as having impaired language when higher-level discourse skills, measured by narrative ability, were tested in addition to core language abilities.”(Pearce, et al, 2014, p. 257)

Additionally, it is important to note that the above study utilized two fairly basic language measures and was still able to attain very significant results. It is strongly speculated that if the study was conducted in the present and utilized a general language test such as the Test of Integrated Language and Literacy the results would have been even more dramatic and the impairment would have extended to language abilities as well as narratives.

So the takeaway messages are as follows:

  1. Do not assume that children who present with challenging behaviors are merely “acting out” and present with intact language abilities. Assess them in order to confirm/rule out a language disorder (and make a relevant psychiatric referral if needed).
  2. Do not assume that children with emotional and behavioral disturbances are ONLY behaviorally/psychiatrically impaired and have average language abilities. Consequently, perform necessary testing in order to confirm/rule out the presence of concomitant language disorder.
  3. General language tests such do NOT directly test children’s narrative abilities or social language skills. Thus, many children can attain average scores on these tests yet still present with pervasive higher order language deficits, so more sensitive testing IS NEEDED
  4. Don’t ascribe linguistic deficits to externalizing symptomology (e.g., impulsivity, anxiety, inattention, challenging behaviors, etc.)  when the cause of it may in actuality be an undiagnosed language impairment. Perform a thorough assessment of higher-order linguistic abilities to ensure that the child receives the best possible care in order to optimally function in social and academic settings.

Helpful Resources:


  • Angus, L. E., & McLeod, J. (Eds.) (2004). The handbook of narrative and psychotherapy. London, UK: Sage Publications
  • Beitchman, J., Cohen, N., Konstantareas, M., & Tannock, R. (Eds.) (1996). Language, learning and behaviour disorders: Developmental, biological and clinical perspectives. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  • Chaika, E. (2000). Linguistics, pragmatics and psychotherapy. London, UK: Whurr Publishers
  • Cohen, N., Barwick, M., Horodezky, N., Vallance, D., & Im, N. (1998). Language, achievement, and cognitive processing in psychiatrically disturbed children with previously identified and unsuspected language impairments. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 39, 865–877.
  • Cohen, N., & Horodezky, N. (1998). Prevalence of language impairments in psychiatrically referred children at different ages: Preschool to adolescence [Letter to the editor]. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 35, 461–262.
  • Emde, R., Wolf, D., & Oppenheim, D. (Eds.) (2003). Revealing the inner worlds of young children—The MacArthur story stem battery. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Gardner, R. (1993). Storytelling in psychotherapy with children. London, UK: Jason Aronson.
  • Hollo, A., Wehby, J. H., & Oliver, R. O.  (2014). Unsuspected language deficits in children with emotional and behavioral disorders: A meta-analysis. Exceptional Children, Vol. 80, No. 2, pp. 169-186.
  • Losh, M., & Capps, L. (2003). Narrative ability in high-functioning children with autism or Asperger’s syndrome. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 33, 239–251.
  • Pearce, P. et al. (2014). Use of narratives to assess language disorders in an inpatient pediatric psychiatric population. Clin Child Psychol Psychiatry, 19(2) 244-259.
  • Toppelberg, C., & Shapiro, T. (2000). Language disorders: A 10-year research update review. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 39, 143–152.
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C/APD Update: New Developments on an Old Controversy

In the past two years, I wrote a series of research-based posts (HERE and HERE) regarding the validity of (Central) Auditory Processing Disorder (C/APD) as a standalone diagnosis as well as questioned the utility of it for classification purposes in the school setting.

Once again I want to reiterate that I was in no way disputing the legitimate symptoms (e.g., difficulty processing language, difficulty organizing narratives, difficulty decoding text, etc.), which the students diagnosed with “CAPD” were presenting with.

Rather, I was citing research to indicate that these symptoms were indicative of broader linguistic-based deficits, which required targeted linguistic/literacy-based interventions rather than recommendations for specific prescriptive programs (e.g., CAPDOTS, Fast ForWord, etc.),  or mere accommodations.

I was also significantly concerned that overfocus on the diagnosis of (C)APD tended to obscure REAL, language-based deficits in children and forced SLPs to address erroneous therapeutic targets based on AuD recommendations or restricted them to a receipt of mere accommodations rather than rightful therapeutic remediation.

Today I wanted to update you regarding new developments, which took place since my last blog post was written 1.5 years ago, regarding the validity of “C/APD” diagnosis.

In April 2016, de Wit and colleagues published a systematic review in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. Their purpose was to review research studies describing the characteristics of APD in children and determine whether these characteristics merited a label of a distinct clinical disorder vs. being representative of other disorders.  After they searched 6 databases they chose 48 studies which satisfied appropriate inclusion criteria. Unfortunately, only 1 study had strong methodological quality and what’s even more disappointing, the children in their studies were very dissimilar and presented with incredibly diverse symptomology. The authors concluded that: “the listening difficulties of children with APD may be a consequence of cognitive, language, and attention issues rather than bottom-up auditory processing.”

In other words, because APD is not a distinct clinical disorder, a diagnosis of APD would not contribute anything to the child’s functioning beyond showing that the child is experiencing linguistically based deficits, which bear further investigation.

To continue, you may remember that in my first CAPD post I extensively cited a tutorial written by Dr. David DeBonis, who is an AuD. In his article, he pointed out numerous inconsistencies involved in CAPD testing and concluded that “routine use of CAPD test protocols cannot be supported” and that [CAPD] “intervention needs to be contextualized and functional.”

In July 2016, Iliadou, Sirimanna, & Bamiou published an article: “CAPD Is Classified in ICD-10 as H93.25 and Hearing Evaluation—Not Screening—Should Be Implemented in Children With Verified Communication and/or Listening Deficits” protesting DeBonis’s claim that CAPD is not a unique clinical entity and as such should not be included in any disease classification system.  They stated that DeBonis omitted the fact that “CAPD is included in the U.S. version of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems–10th Revision (ICD-10) under the code H93.25” (p. 368). They also listed what they believed to be a number of article omissions, which they claimed biased DeBonis’s tutorial’s conclusions.

The authors claimed that DeBonis provided a limited definition of CAPD based only on ASHA’s Technical report vs. other sources such as American Academy of Audiology (2010), British Society of Audiology Position Statement (2011), and Canadian Guidelines on Auditory Processing Disorder in Children and Adults: Assessment Intervention (2012).  (p. 368)

The also authors claimed that DeBonis did not adequately define the term “traditional testing” and failed to provide several key references for select claims.  They disagreed with DeBonis’s linkage of certain digit tests, as well as his “lumping” of studies which included children with suspected and diagnosed APD into the same category. (p. 368-9)  They also objected to the fact that he “oversimplified” results of positive gains of select computer-based interventions for APD, and that in his summary section he listed only selected studies pertinent to the topic of intelligence and auditory processing skills. (p. 369).

Their main objection, however, had to do with the section of DeBonis’s article that contained “recommended assessment and intervention process for children with listening and communication difficulties in the classroom”.  They expressed concerns with his recommendations on the grounds that he failed to provide published research to support that this was the optimal way to provide intervention. The authors concluded their article by stating that due to the above-mentioned omissions they felt that DeBonis’s tutorial “show(ed) unacceptable bias” (p. 370).

In response to the Iliadou, Sirimanna, & Bamiou, 2016 concerns, DeBonis issued his own response article shortly thereafter (DeBonis, 2016). Firstly, he pointed out that when his tutorial was released in June 2015 the ICD-10 was not yet in effect (it was enacted Oct 1, 2015). As such his statement was factually accurate.

Secondly, he also made a very important point regarding the C/APD construct validity, namely that it fails to satisfy the Sydenham–Guttentag criteria as a distinct clinical entity (Vermiglio, 2014). Namely, despite attempts at diagnostic uniformity, CAPD remains ambiguously defined, with testing failing to “represent a homogenous patient group.” (p. 906).

For those who are unfamiliar with this terminology (as per direct quote from Dr. Vermiglio’s presentation): “The Sydenham-Guttentag Criteria for the Clinical Entity Proposed by Vermiglio (accepted 2014, JAAA) is as follows:

  1. The clinical entity must possess an unambiguous definition (Sydenham, 1676; FDA, 2000)
  2. It must represent a homogeneous patient group (Sydenham, 1676; Guttentag, 1949, 1950; FDA, 2000)
  3. It must represent a perceived limitation (Guttentag, 1949)
  4. It must facilitate diagnosis and intervention (Sydenham, 1676; Guttentag, 1949; FDA, 2000)

Thirdly, DeBonis addressed Iliadou, Sirimanna, & Bamiou, 2016 concerns that he did not use the most recent definition of APD by pointing out that he was most qualified to discuss the US system and its definitions of CAPD, as well as that “the U.S. guidelines, despite their limitations and age, continue to have a major impact on the approach to auditory processing disorders worldwide” (p.372). He also elucidated that: the AAA’s (2010) definition of CAPD is “not so much built on previous definitions but rather has continued to rely on them” and as such does not constitute a “more recent” source of CAPD definitions. (p.372)

DeBonis next addressed the claim that he did not adequately define the term “traditional testing”. He stated that he defined it on pg. 125 of his tutorial and that information on it was taken directly from the AAA (2010) document. He then explained how it is “aligned with bottom-up aspects of the auditory system” by citing numerous references (see p. 372 for further details).  After that, he addressed Iliadou, Sirimanna, & Bamiou, 2016 claim that he failed to provide references by pointing out the relevant citation in his article, which they failed to see.

Next, he proceeded to address their concerns “regarding the interaction between cognition and auditory processing” by reiterating that auditory processing testing is “not so pure” and is affected by constructs such as memory, executive function skills, etc. He also referenced the findings of  Beck, Clarke and Moore (2016)  that “most currently used tests of APD are tests of language and attention…lack sensitivity and specificity” (p. 27).

The next point addressed by DeBonis was the use of studies which included children with suspected vs. confirmed APD. He agreed that “one cannot make inferences about one population from another” but added that the data from the article in question “provided insight into the important role of attention and memory in children who are poor listeners” and that “such listeners represent the population [which] should be [AuD’s] focus.” (p.373)

From there on, DeBonis moved on to address Iliadou, Sirimanna, & Bamiou, 2016 claims that he “oversimplified” the results of one CBAT study dealing with effects of computer-based interventions for APD. He responded that the authors of that review themselves stated that: “the evidence for improving phonological awareness is “initial”.

Consequently, “improvements in auditory processing—without subsequent changes in the very critical tasks of reading and language—certainly do not represent an endorsement for the auditory training techniques that were studied.” (p.373)

Here, DeBonis also raised concerns regarding the overall concept of treatment effectiveness, stating that it should not be based on “improved performance on behavioral tests of auditory processing or electrophysiological measures” but ratheron improvements on complex listening and academic tasks“. (p.373) As such,

  1. “This limited definition of effectiveness leads to statements about the impact of certain interventions that can be misinterpreted at best and possibly misleading.”
  2. “Such a definition of effectiveness is unlikely to be satisfying to working clinicians or parents of children with communication difficulties who hope to see changes in day-to-day communication and academic abilities.” (p.373)

Then, DeBonis addressed Iliadou, Sirimanna, & Bamiou, 2016 concerns regarding the omission of an article supporting CAPD and intelligence as separate entities. He reiterated that the aim of his tutorial was to note that “performance on commonly used tests of auditory processing is highly influenced by a number of cognitive and linguistic factors” rather than to “do an overview of research in support of and in opposition to the construct”. (p.373)

Subsequently, DeBonis addressed the Iliadou, Sirimanna, & Bamiou, 2016 claim that he did not provide research to support his proposed testing protocol, as well as that he made a figure error. He conceded that the authors were correct with respect to the figure error (the information provided in the figure was not sufficient). However, he pointed out that the purpose of his tutorial was to “to review the literature related to ongoing concerns about the use of the CAPD construct in school-aged children and to propose an alternative assessment/intervention procedure that moves away from testing “auditory processing” and moves toward identifying and supporting students who have listening challenges”. As such, while the effectiveness of his model is being tested, it makes sense to “use of questionnaires and speech-in-noise tests with very strong psychometric characteristics” and thoroughly assess these children’s “language and cognitive skills to reduce the chance of misdiagnosis”  in order to provide functional interventions (p.373).

Finally, Debonis addressed the Iliadou, Sirimanna, & Bamiou, 2016 accusation that his tutorial contained “unacceptable bias”. He pointed out that “the reviewers of this [his 2015 article article] did not agree” and that since the time of that article’s publication “readers and other colleagues have viewed it as a vehicle for important thought about how best to help children who have listening difficulties.” (p. 374)

Having read the above information, many of you by now must be wondering: “Why is the research on APD as a valid stand alone diagnosis continues to be published at regular intervals?”

To explain the above phenomenon, I will use several excerpts from an excellent presentation by Kamhi, A, Vermiglio, A, & Wallach, G (2016), which I attended during the 2016 ASHA Convention in Philadephia, PA.

It has been suggested that the above has to do with: “The bias of the CAPD Convention Committee that reviews submissions.” Namely, “The committee only accepts submissions consistent with the traditional view of (C)APD espoused by Bellis, Chermak and others who wrote the ASHA (2005) position statement on CAPD.”

Kamhi Vermiglio, and Wallach (2016) supported this claim by pointing out that when Dr. Vermiglio attempted to submit his findings on the nature of “C/APD” for the 2015 ASHA Convention, “the committee did not accept Vermiglio’s submission” but instead accepted the following seminar: “APD – It Exists! Differential Diagnosis & Remediation” and allocated for it “a prominent location in the program planner.”

Indeed, during the 2016 ASHA convention alone, there was a host of 1 and 2-hour pro-APD sessions such as: “Yes, You CANS! Adding Therapy for Specific CAPDs to an IEP“, “Perspectives on the Assessment & Treatment of Individuals With Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD)“, as well asThe Buffalo Model for CAPD: Looking Back & Forward, in addition to a host of posters and technical reports attempting to validate this diagnosis despite mounting evidence refuting that very fact. Yet only one session, “Never-Ending Controversies With CAPD: What Thinking SLPs & Audiologists Know” presented by Kamhi, Vermiglio, & Wallach (two SLPs and one AuD) and accepted by a non-AuD committee, discussed the current controversies raging in the fields of speech pathology and audiology pertaining to “C/APD”. 

In 2016, Diane Paul, the Director of Clinical Issues in Speech-Language Pathology at ASHA  had asked Kamhi, Vermiglio, and Wallach “to offer comments on the outline of audiology and SLP roles in assessing and treating CAPD”.  According to Kamhi, et al, 2016, the outline did not mention any of controversies in assessment and diagnosis documented by numerous authors dating as far as 2009. It also did not “mention the lack of evidence on the efficacy of auditory interventions documented in the systematic review by Fey et al. (2011) and DeBonis (2015).”

At this juncture, it’s important to start thinking regarding possible incentives a professional might have to continue performing APD testing and making prescriptive program recommendations despite all the existing evidence refuting the validity and utility of APD diagnosis for children presenting with listening difficulties.


  • There is still no compelling evidence that APD is a stand-alone diagnosis with clear diagnostic criteria
  • There is still no compelling evidence that auditory deficits are a “significant risk factor for  language or academic performance”
  • There is still no compelling evidence that “auditory interventions provide any unique benefit to auditory, language, or academic outcomes” (Hazan, Messaoud-Galusi, Rosan, Nouwens, & Shakespeare, 2009; Watson & Kidd, 2009)
  • APD deficits are linguistically based deficits which accompany a host of developmental conditions ranging from developmental language disorders to learning disabilities, etc.
  • SLPs should continue comprehensively assessing children diagnosed with “C/APD” to determine the scope of their linguistic deficits
  • SLPs should continue formulating language goals to  determine linguistic areas of weaknesses
  • SLPS should be wary of any goals or recommendations which focus on remediation of isolated skills such as: “auditory discrimination, auditory sequencing, phonological memory, working memory, or rapid serial naming” since studies have definitively confirmed their lack of effectiveness (Fey, et al, 2011)
  • SLPs should be wary of any prescriptive programs offering C/APD “interventions”
  • SLPs should focus on improving children’s abilities for functional communication including listening, speaking, reading, and writing
    • Please see excellent article written by Dr. Wallach in 2014 entitled: Improving Clinical Practice: A School-Age and School-Based Perspective. It “presents a conceptual framework for intervention at school-age levels” and discusses “advanced levels of language that move beyond preschool and early elementary grade goals and objectives with a focus on comprehension and meta-abilities.”

So there you have it, sadly, despite research and logic, the controversy is very much alive! Except I am seeing some new developments!

I see SLPs, newly-minted and seasoned alike, steadily voicing their concerns regarding the symptomology they are documenting in children diagnosed with so-called “CAPD” as being purely auditory in nature.

I see more and more SLPs supporting research evidence and science by voicing their concerns regarding the numerous diagnostic markers of ‘CAPD’ which do not make sense to them by stating “Wait a second – that can’t be right!”.

I see more and more SLPs documenting the lack of progress children make after being prescribed isolated FM systems or computer programs which claim to treat “APD symptomology” (without provision of therapy services).  I see more and more SLPs beginning to understand the lack of usefulness of this diagnosis, who switch to using language-based interventions to teach children to listen, speak, read and write and to generalize these abilities to both social and academic settings.

I see more and more SLPs beginning to understand the lack of usefulness of this diagnosis, who switch to using language-based interventions to teach children to listen, speak, read and write and to generalize these abilities to both social and academic settings.

So I definitely do see hope on the horizon!


(arranged in chronological order of citation in the blog post):

Related Posts:


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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.


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.


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).


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).


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.


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. 


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.”)


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).


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


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).


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.

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.


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.

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What Research Shows About the Functional Relevance of Standardized Language Tests

As an SLP who routinely conducts speech and language assessments in several settings (e.g., school and private practice), I understand the utility of and the need for standardized speech, language, and literacy tests.  However, as an SLP who works with children with dramatically varying degree of cognition, abilities, and skill-sets, I also highly value supplementing these standardized tests with functional and dynamic assessments, interactions, and observations.

Since a significant value is placed on standardized testing by both schools and insurance companies for the purposes of service provision and reimbursement, I wanted to summarize in today’s post the findings of recent articles on this topic.  Since my primary interest lies in assessing and treating school-age children, for the purposes of today’s post all of the reviewed articles came directly from the Language Speech and Hearing Services in Schools  (LSHSS) journal.

We’ve all been there. We’ve all had situations in which students scored on the low end of normal, or had a few subtest scores in the below average range, which equaled  an average total score.  We’ve all poured over eligibility requirements trying to figure out whether the student should receive therapy services given the stringent standardized testing criteria in some states/districts.

Of course, as it turns out, the answer is never simple.  In 2006, Spaulding, Plante & Farinella set out to examine the assumption: “that children with language impairment will receive low scores on standardized tests, and therefore [those] low scores will accurately identify these children” (61).   So they analyzed the data from 43 commercially available child language tests to identify whether evidence exists to support their use in identifying language impairment in children.

Turns out it did not!  Turns out due to the variation in psychometric properties of various tests (see article for specific details), many children with language impairment are overlooked by standardized tests by receiving scores within the average range or not receiving low enough scores to qualify for services. Thus, “the clinical consequence is that a child who truly has a language impairment has a roughly equal chance of being correctly or incorrectly identified, depending on the test that he or she is given.” Furthermore, “even if a child is diagnosed accurately as language impaired at one point in time, future diagnoses may lead to the false perception that the child has recovered, depending on the test(s) that he or she has been given (69).”

Consequently, they created a decision tree (see below) with recommendations for clinicians using standardized testing. They recommend using alternate sources of data (sensitivity and specificity rates) to support accurate identification (available for a small subset of select tests).

The idea behind it is: “if sensitivity and specificity data are strong, and these data were derived from subjects who are comparable to the child tested, then the clinician can be relatively confident in relying on the test score data to aid his or her diagnostic decision. However, if the data are weak, then more caution is warranted and other sources of information on the child’s status might have primacy in making a diagnosis (70).”

Fast forward 6 years, and a number of newly revised tests later,  in 2012, Spaulding and colleagues set out to “identify various U.S. state education departments’ criteria for determining the severity of language impairment in children, with particular focus on the use of norm-referenced tests” as well as to “determine if norm-referenced tests of child language were developed for the purpose of identifying the severity of children’s language impairment”  (176).

They obtained published procedures for severity determinations from available U.S. state education departments, which specified the use of norm-referenced tests, and reviewed the manuals for 45 norm-referenced tests of child language to determine if each test was designed to identify the degree of a child’s language impairment.

What they found out was “the degree of use and cutoff-point criteria for severity determination varied across states. No cutoff-point criteria aligned with the severity cutoff points described within the test manuals. Furthermore, tests that included severity information lacked empirical data on how the severity categories were derived (176).”

Thus they urged SLPs to exercise caution in determining the severity of children’s language impairment via norm-referenced test performance “given the inconsistency in guidelines and lack of empirical data within test manuals to support this use (176)”.

Following the publication of this article, Ireland, Hall-Mills & Millikin issued a response to the  Spaulding and colleagues article. They pointed out that the “severity of language impairment is only one piece of information considered by a team for the determination of eligibility for special education and related services”.  They noted that  they left out a host of federal and state guideline requirements and “did not provide an analysis of the regulations governing special education evaluation and criteria for determining eligibility (320).” They pointed out that “IDEA prohibits the use of ‘any single measure or assessment as the sole criterion’ for determination of disability  and requires that IEP teams ‘draw upon information from a variety of sources.”

They listed a variety of examples from several different state departments of education (FL, NC, VA, etc.), which mandate the use of functional assessments, dynamic assessments criterion-referenced assessments, etc. for their determination of language therapy eligibility.

But are the SLPs from across the country appropriately using the federal and state guidelines in order to determine eligibility? While one should certainly hope so, it does not always seem to be the case.  To illustrate, in 2012, Betz & colleagues asked 364 SLPs to complete a survey “regarding how frequently they used specific standardized tests when diagnosing suspected specific language impairment (SLI) (133).”

Their purpose was to determine “whether the quality of standardized tests, as measured by the test’s psychometric properties, is related to how frequently the tests are used in clinical practice” (133).

What they found out was that the most frequently used tests were the comprehensive assessments including the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals and the Preschool Language Scale as well as one word vocabulary tests such as the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test. Furthermore, the date of publication seemed to be the only factor which affected the frequency of test selection.

They also found out that frequently SLPs did not follow up the comprehensive standardized testing with domain specific assessments (critical thinking, social communication, etc.) but instead used the vocabulary testing as a second measure.  They were understandably puzzled by that finding. “The emphasis placed on vocabulary measures is intriguing because although vocabulary is often a weakness in children with SLI (e.g., Stothard et al., 1998), the research to date does not show vocabulary to be more impaired than other language domains in children with SLI (140).

According to the authors, “perhaps the most discouraging finding of this study was the lack of a correlation between frequency of test use and test accuracy, measured both in terms of sensitivity/specificity and mean difference scores (141).”

If since the time (2012) SLPs have not significantly change their practices, the above is certainly disheartening, as it implies that rather than being true diagnosticians, SLPs are using whatever is at hand that has been purchased by their department to indiscriminately assess students with suspected speech language disorders. If that is truly the case, it certainly places into question the Ireland, Hall-Mills & Millikin’s response to Spaulding and colleagues.  In other words, though SLPs are aware that they need to comply with state and federal regulations when it comes to unbiased and targeted assessments of children with suspected language disorders, they may not actually be using appropriate standardized testing much less supplementary informal assessments (e.g., dynamic, narrative, language sampling) in order to administer well-rounded assessments.  

So where do we go from here? Well, it’s quite simple really!   We already know what the problem is. Based on the above articles we know that:

  1. Standardized tests possess significant limitations
  2. They are not used with optimal effectiveness by many SLPs
  3.  They may not be frequently supplemented by relevant and targeted informal assessment measures in order to improve the accuracy of disorder determination and subsequent therapy eligibility

Now that we have identified a problem, we need to develop and consistently implement effective practices to ameliorate it.  These include researching psychometric properties of tests to review sample size, sensitivity and specificity, etc, use domain specific assessments to supplement administration of comprehensive testing, as well as supplement standardized testing with a plethora of functional assessments.

SLPs can review testing manuals and consult with colleagues when they feel that the standardized testing is underidentifying students with language impairments (e.g., HERE and HERE).  They can utilize referral checklists (e.g., HERE) in order to pinpoint the students’ most significant difficulties. Finally, they can develop and consistently implement informal assessment practices (e.g., HERE and HERE) during testing in order to gain a better grasp on their students’ TRUE linguistic functioning.

Stay tuned for the second portion of this post entitled: “What Research Shows About the Functional Relevance of Standardized Speech Tests?” to find out the best practices in the assessment of speech sound disorders in children.


  1. Spaulding, Plante & Farinella (2006) Eligibility Criteria for Language Impairment: Is the Low End of Normal Always Appropriate?
  2. Spaulding, Szulga, & Figueria (2012) Using Norm-Referenced Tests to Determine Severity of Language Impairment in Children: Disconnect Between U.S. Policy Makers and Test Developers
  3. Ireland, Hall-Mills & Millikin (2012) Appropriate Implementation of Severity Ratings, Regulations, and State Guidance: A Response to “Using Norm-Referenced Tests to Determine Severity of Language Impairment in Children: Disconnect Between U.S. Policy Makers and Test Developers” by Spaulding, Szulga, & Figueria (2012)
  4. Betz et al. (2013) Factors Influencing the Selection of Standardized Tests for the Diagnosis of Specific Language Impairment


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Teaching Metalinguistic Vocabulary for Reading Success

In my therapy sessions I spend a significant amount of time improving literacy skills (reading, spelling, and writing) of language impaired students.  In my work with these students I emphasize goals with a focus on phonics, phonological awareness, encoding (spelling) etc. However, what I have frequently observed in my sessions are significant gaps in the students’ foundational knowledge pertaining to the basics of sound production and letter recognition.  Basic examples of these foundational deficiencies involve students not being able to fluently name the letters of the alphabet, understand the difference between vowels and consonants, or fluently engage in sound/letter correspondence tasks (e.g., name a letter and then quickly and accurately identify which sound it makes).  Consequently, a significant portion of my sessions involves explicit instruction of the above concepts.

This got me thinking regarding my students’ vocabulary knowledge in general.  We, SLPs, spend a significant amount of time on explicit and systematic vocabulary instruction with our students because as compared to typically developing peers, they have immature and limited vocabulary knowledge. But do we teach our students the abstract vocabulary necessary for reading success? Do we explicitly teach them definitions of a letter, a word, a sentence? etc.

A number of my colleagues are skeptical. “Our students already have poor comprehension”, they tell me, “Why should we tax their memory with abstract words of little meaning to them?”  And I agree with them of course, but up to a point.

I agree that our students have working memory and processing speed deficits as a result of which they have a much harder time learning and recalling new words.

However, I believe that not teaching them meanings of select words pertaining to language is a huge disservice to them. Here is why. To be a successful communicator, speaker, reader, and writer, individuals need to possess adequate metalinguistic skills.

In simple terms “metalinguistics” refers to the individual’s ability to actively think about, talk about, and manipulate language. Reading, writing, and spelling require active level awareness and thought about language. Students with poor metalinguistic skills have difficulty learning to read, write, and spell.  They lack awareness that spoken words are made up of individual units of sound, which can be manipulated. They lack awareness that letters form words, words form phrases and sentences, and sentences form paragraphs. They may not understand that letters make sounds or that a word may consist of more letters than sounds (e.g., /ship/). The bottom line is that students with decreased metalinguistic skills cannot effectively use language to talk about concepts like sounds, letters, or words unless they are explicitly taught those abilities.

So I do! Furthermore, I can tell you that explicit instruction of metalinguistic vocabulary does significantly improve my students understanding of the tasks involved in obtaining literacy competence. Even my students with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities significantly benefit from understanding the meanings of: letters, words, sentences, etc.

I even created a basic abstract vocabulary handout to facilitate my students comprehension of these words (FREE HERE). While by no means exhaustive, it is a decent starting point for teaching my students the vocabulary needed to improve their metalinguistic skills.

For older elementary aged students with average IQ, I only provide the words I want them to define, and then ask them to look up their meanings online via the usage of PC or an iPad. This turns of vocabulary activity into a critical thinking and an executive functions task.

Students need to figure out the appropriate search string needed to in order to locate the answer as well as which definition comes the closest to clearly and effectively defining the presented word. One of the things I really like about Google online dictionary, is that it provides multiple definitions of the same words along with word origins. As a result, it teaches students to carefully review and reflect upon their selected definition in order to determine its appropriateness.

A word of caution as though regarding using Kiddle, Google-powered search engine for children. While it’s great for locating child friendly images, it is not appropriate for locating abstract definition of words. To illustrate, when you type in the string search into Google, “what is the definition of a letter?” You will get several responses which will appropriately match  some meanings of your query.  However the same string search in Kiddle, will merely yield helpful tips on writing a letter as well as images of envelopes with stamps affixed to them.

In contrast to the above, I use a more structured vocabulary defining activities for younger elementary age students as well as students with intellectual impairments. I provide simple definitions of abstract words, attach images and examples to each definition as well as create cloze activities and several choices of answers in order to ensure my students’ comprehension of these words.

I find that this and other metalinguistic activities significantly improve my students comprehension of abstract words such as ‘communication’, ‘language’, as well as ‘literacy’. They cease being mere buzzwords, frequently heard yet consistently not understood.  To my students these words begin to come to life, brim with meaning, and inspire numerous ‘aha’ moments.

Now that you’ve had a glimpse of my therapy sessions I’d love to have a glimpse of yours. What metalinguistic goals related to literacy are you targeting with your students? Comment below to let me know.