Many schools in Ontario and Canada now have a culturally diverse population of students, which means that speech-language pathologists need to consider how to provide assessments which are culturally and linguistically fair. In the case of students referred for assessment who are English Language Learners (ELLs), SLPs will need to consider the child’s expressive and receptive knowledge in both their Native language and English to determine how to proceed with the assessment.
These are some questions I had when learning about how to conduct a culturally and linguistically appropriate assessment. I think the answers provide ways that SLPs can make assessment fair for all students:
What is a “silent period” and is it normal?
A “silent period” is a common second-language acquisition phenomenon. It occurs when children are first exposed to a second language, and focus on listening and comprehension. During this period children are often very quiet and speak little in order to focus on understanding the new language. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the younger the child, the longer the silent period tends to last (older children may remain in the silent period for a few weeks to a few months, while preschoolers may be relatively silent for a year or more).
Can I still use norm-referenced standardized tests to assess ELLs?
Yes, but interpret the results with caution and supplement the test with other assessment tools. The child’s scores compared to the norms would also be invalid (since certain items on the test may be culturally or linguistically specific to North America/English), and thus the tests could not be used to gain conclusive quantitative data. However, they may give an SLP some preliminary information about the areas where a child may excel or need more practice. It is important to supplement standardized tests with other information, such as a language sample, observation of the child in the classroom, a review of the child’s classwork, information about the child’s expressive and receptive abilities in English and/or other languages from teachers and parents, etc.
White & Jin (cited below in the Additional Resources) discuss a variety of assessment procedures which can be used with bilingual children, including the following:
• Dynamic assessment, which commonly involves a test-teach-retest format, can be a good option for assessing bilingual children. This type of assessment integrates both assessment and therapy simultaneously, to provide information on the child’s level of performance and the impact of intervention on performance, to shed light on the strategies which would best support the child’s learning.
• Criterion-referenced (CR) measures, or measures of the child’s level of performance on a particular skill, can also be good alternative to norm-referenced standardized measures. CR measures tend to be informal (i.e., language sampling, probing, etc.) and allow the clinician to use materials which are familiar to the child, thus reducing cultural and linguistic bias.
• A sociocultural approach to assessment, although more time-consuming and intensive, takes a holistic view of the child’s developing speech and language skills in the context of their social and cultural environment.
• The RIOT procedure is one representation of the sociocultural approach, which includes the following components:
Review all documentation, client records, clinical history and educational records.
Interview parents, teachers, and relevant others to glean the child’s language history, family dynamics, interactions, cultural differences, etc.
Observe the child in multiple settings with a variety of different people.
Test all languages which the child speaks using (modified) formal and informal assessments (i.e., language sampling, dynamic assessment, etc.).
What should I say to bilingual parents or parents of ELLs in terms of Native language (L1) vs. English language use?
• Parents should know that learning two languages at home (i.e., English and a Native language like Hindi or Mandarin) does not cause confusion or a language problem in young children
• Children with language delay can also learn two languages (without the languages being kept separate, i.e., only L1 at home and only English at school), and will not become more delayed if they hear or learn two languages (However, speech and language difficulties will be heard in both languages)
• Even if a child has a language delay, parents should still continue to use both their L1 and/or English, to increase the child’s opportunities to talk, play, and get to know friends and family members who speak either language
• If the parents are not fluent or comfortable speaking in English, they should speak and read books with the child in L1 to ensure the child still has exposure to good language models
In terms of language use, what might I expect of children who are learning two languages?
Hoff & Core (cited below in the Additional Resources) provide some “need to know” facts about the language development of bilingual children:
• A measure of total vocabulary provides the best indicator of young bilingual children’s language learning capacity.
• Bilingual children can have different strengths in each language.
• Learning two languages takes longer than learning one. Thus, on average, bilingual children lag behind monolingual children in single language comparisons.
• The quantity and quality of bilingual children’s input in each language influence their rates of development in each language.
It is normal for children learning a second language to:
• Use one language more than the other
• Mix words from both languages in the same sentence (aka “code-switching”)
• Make mistakes in the new language until they learn all the rules
• Lose language skills and fluency in their L1 as they learn English (in order to prevent this, parents should be encouraged to reinforce and maintain L1 by using it at home, even if the child chooses to respond in English)
For more information, check out these additional resources:
De Lamo White, C., & Jin, L. (2011). Evaluation of speech and language assessment approaches with bilingual children. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders / Royal College of Speech & Language Therapists, 46(6), 613.
Eriks-Brophy, A. (2014). Assessing the language of Aboriginal Canadian children: Towards a more culturally valid approach. Canadian Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, 38(2), 152-173.
Hoff, E., & Core, C. (2015). What clinicians need to know about bilingual development. Seminars in Speech & Language, 17;36;(2), 089-099.
Language Background Questionnaires in Different Languages:
Intelligibility in Context Scale in Different Languages:
University of Alberta’s Child English as a Second Language Resource Centre:
Red Flags for Speech-Language Impairment in Bilingual Children:
Bilingualism in Ontario
A website with information and a blog about bilingualism in Ontario, created by a speech-language pathology faculty member at Laurentian University