Designing Intervention for Between-Language Transfer

SLPs working with bilingual children often ask how to design interventions that promote transfer. We know that it’s not appropriate to take away a child’s home language. We also know that most SLPs (95% or more) only speak one language. So what do we do?

This is a question that my colleagues and I have thought about a lot. I’ve written about our previous studies here and here. We know that not everything transfers. Some parts of language seem to more readily transfer between languages. Usually meaning including story structure, vocabulary and semantics. But form doesn’t transfer as easily. If forms are shared– plural s in Spanish and English for example, they are more likely to transfer. But, it’s less likely that the subjunctive form in Spanish will transfer to English. They are too different.

Still, we wanted to incorporate grammatical goals into our intervention since grammar is an area of difficulty for children with DLD. First, we thought about broad principles of language learning that would support transfer. We drew from MacWhinney’s Unified Model to help us think about transfer:

  • Resonance helps to reinforce patterns. We made sure that the vocabulary we used was drawn from the curriculum, and that we used the vocabulary in full phrases and sentences. We reasoned that this would help children learn the grammatical patterns as well as the vocabulary.
  • Proceduralization helps children make connections. Rather than teaching grammatical forms in isolation we emphasized features in larger story telling contexts using repeated exposures.
  • Internalization is the process by which children may regulate their own actions through language. We expand this by supporting children’s use of L1 in supporting metalinguistic awareness. We propose that this self-talk in the L1 can help form a bridge between L1 and L2 learning.
  • Transfer can be negative or positive. In negative transfer, children might incorrectly apply patterns for their L1 to the L2. In positive transfer they might use what they know to leverage use of forms in L2. We tried to promote positive transfer through use of cognates, and through pointing out similarities (and differences) in the grammars of the two languages.

Grammatical Target Selection

In our study, we did not individualize targets for each child. Instead, we identified the kinds of targets that are most difficult for children with DLD in Spanish and in English. We wanted to provide support for grammatical comprehension and production within narrative and expository texts. What’s seems to be difficult for children with DLD is forms that are less salient in the input. We identified constructions at a broad level that are difficult for children with DLD in both Spanish and English and also how they might manifest differently across the two languages. We thought about effective communication through elaboration and precision. Targets we chose included the following:

  • Elaborated noun phrases are the building blocks for grammar across both languages. And we could build up the vocabulary words they were learning into these descriptive phases. We included use of prepositions and adjectives. In Spanish, we made sure to focus on number and gender agreement in using adjectives + nouns since this is an area of difficulty for kids with DLD.
  • Tense and complex utterances were targeted to help support expression of causal and temporal relationships within the stories that children hear, read, and told.
  • Deictic reference – we incorporated use of articles and pronouns from the texts to emphasize different points of view, references, and agreement.

Results indicated significant gains across grammatical forms in Spanish including (clitics, subjunctive, imperfect, and adjective agreement). There were also significant gains in English (even though the intervention was completely in Spanish). Gains we noted in English included 3rd singular, passives, and negatives. We think that through an approach which emphasized expression of complete and elaborated ideas, children started paying more attention to ways they could be more precise in their use of grammar. Thus, in this study, it wasn’t about the specific forms but rather providing the tools (and models) that children could use to express their knowledge through language. The focus wasn’t as much on the “correctness” of use but on elaboration and expression of meaning. And this could be done across both languages.

This is just a small study, but it gives us a glimpse into how we can use these learning principles with broad grammatical targets to support transfer. If you want to read the original paper, you can do so here.

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How nonverbal are nonverbal IQ tasks?

I think we sometimes ASSUME that nonverbal tasks are nonverbal in the same way. And you know what happens when we assume right?? This is true for IQ tests that test nonverbal abilities. We have to ask what kinds of abilities? How are these tested? How are they elicited? And, how are they observed?

There are different kinds of nonverbal tasks. Sometimes the instructions are given verbally but the response is pointing, manipulating, constructing, or gesturing. Sometimes both instructions and responses are nonverbal. Some IQ tests are fully nonverbal, others have nonverbal subtests. In a paper published a couple of years ago, we were interested in how bilingual children with and without developmental language disorder (DLD) performed on nonverbal tests.

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Test Reviews

I teach psychometrics and measurement– now at the Ph.D. level at UCI. Previously at the MA level at UT. And I’ve often talked about how to select tests for diagnostic decision making. We want to select measures that do the job! For making a decision about whether someone has an impairment or not, we need to use procedures that have good sensitivity and specificity. Validity and reliability is good, but not enough.

I used to have an assignment in my class for MA students where they had to select a set of measures for a fictional speech and language clinic, given a budget. They had to review and justify their purchases, covering the target age range, possible needs and disorder categories. Importantly, they needed to select measures that did the job. I figured they would leave with a good list of possible measures that work (easy b/c MOST DON’T!!). From time to time, someone will ask me for the list of tests and I hunt it down and send it out. I finally decided to make it easy on myself and to make the list into a viewable google sheet. The bolded measures are those that report sensitiity and specificity of at least 80%. These are the ones that do the job. I also know that there are newer and updated measures, and new information on old measures. If you want to help update the list, here’s a form you can complete. It will automatically update in the google sheet under the new measures tab.

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Bilingual SLP or SLP who is bilingual?

There’s a difference.

Every so often, I see a question about whether someone who is bilingual should bother to complete a bilingual specialization or certificate program as part of their graduate training. The answers vary, and certainly there aren’t enough bilingual MA or MS programs that can provide the training, but does it matter. For me, it does. I think that SLPs who consider themselves bilingual SLPs have an ethical responsibility to be on top of the knowledge base required to practice in this area. Just like any SLP who is hired into any other position needs to have the knowledge base to meet the demands of that position.

A bilingual SLP needs to have knowledge and skills regarding bilingual development, identification of disorder in bilinguals, bilingual treatment, and knowledge about cultural factors that may impact service delivery. Asha has a statement outlining the baseline knoweldge you need to have to call yourself a bilingual SLP. Knowing another language alone does not provide you with this knowledge base any more than knowing English by itself would make you an SLP– SLPs have to complete an MA or MS degree taking courses that cover the scope of practice in the different disorder categories. I can’t imagine for example, that an SLP who stutters for example would be able to skip learning about how to assess and treat stuttering. Yes, they would bring in insights that others might not have, but it wouldn’t prepare them to work with this population. The difference of course is that knowledge and skills in bilingual assessment and treatment across all the disorder areas is not required for graduation, licensure or certification at a national level. Yet, I think that if we are going to serve bilingual populations, we need to develop the knowledge base to do so. Being bilingual IS NOT ENOUGH.

If you are bilingual and an SLP and don’t know about bilingual development, disorders, assessment, intervention, and counseling, then you are an SLP who is bilingual. You can become a bilingual SLP but you are not one yet. If this is the case, then taking courses, CEUs, reading the literature is a good way to develop and expand your practice.

Asha does not have specific rules for certifying that bilingual SLPs actually have the knowledge base that they claim. We must rely on each individual’s ethics in appropriately representing their skills and competencies. If you claim to be a bilingual SLP you are claiming that you have expertise in bilingualism, including bilingual assessment and treatment.

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Children’s use of Spanish in the U.S. Context

In this paper, we studied Spanish-English bilinguals between the ages of 4 and 7 years old. We were interested in the relationship between bilingual children’s age, their productivity in Spanish (as indexed by MLU) and their accuracy in morpheme production. We found that age didn’t predict correct production of grammatical forms but MLU did. The grammatical forms that children demonstrated mastery on (80% or more accurate) was related to MLU. We also found that relative difficulty for grammatical forms was similar for different levels of Spanish fluency. Let’s break it down.

Here you can see what forms children produced accurately (80% or more correct) as related to their MLU.

This graphic shows the relative difficulty in children’s productives of these forms. These are based on averages from 228 Spanish-English bilingual children between the ages of 4 and 7. Easy forms are those that children on average produced correctly about 70% or more of the time. Medium forms are those children produced correctly about 60% of the time. Finally, the hard items are those that children produced correctly about 40-50% of the time.

I hope that this information is useful for those who work with Spanish-English speaking children.

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Receptive Expressive Gap in Narratives

Assessment of narratives can be helpful in making a diagnosis of developmental language disorder (DLD). One of the things that I like about narrative assessment is that it is efficient, you can analyze the narrative at different levels (words, sentences, story). For kids who are bilingual, narrative assessment can provide a way to analyze their language when there aren’t standardized tests. Additionally, it appears that bilingual children transfer what they know about story structure from one language to another so that also makes it useful.

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Dynamic Assessment of Narratives: Which Language Should I Choose?

Dynamic assessment (DA) is a powerful approach that we can employ as part of diagnostic decision making. There are a number of advantages to DA, especially for children whose experiences don’t meet mainstream expectations including dual language learners. A number of DA approaches have been validated and show good sensitivity and specificity. DA of narratives and word learning are two of examples of these approaches.

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Grammatical Assessment of Bilingual Children in English

We’ve had a paper out for a couple of years now and I’ve been meaning to blog about it, but for some reason other things have taken priority. The question that we addressed in this study is the extent to which English assessment of children who are Spanish-English bilinguals would be useful for identification of DLD.

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Assessment of Bilinguals: Don’t Go NUTS!

For a long time, many of us have worked on development of better assessment methods for bilingual children. We know that many of the measures normed for monolinguals are not appropriate for bilinguals. We know that translated measures can lose their psychometric properties because difficulty may shift in translation. But, in the last 20 years there have been more measures and procedures that are validated for Spanish-English bilinguals. Work on other language pairs is emerging as well, but right now the majority of available measures focus on Spanish-English.

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We Can’t WAIT!

There’s been a lot of discussion concerning COVID19 and schooling from home. In the special education domain, at least in speech-language pathology, we seem to be all over the place. Not that it’s easy it’s not. But, I hear a lot of comments and reports that school districts are suspending special education testing:

  • till schools open again
  • because standardized tests aren’t standardized for on-line administration
  • because we’re not comfortable
  • because we think that it can’t be valid

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