A particular challenge in assessment of bilingual children is to distinguish between differences in their language performance due to not knowing English and differences (or low scores) due to having language impairment or learning disabilities. I’ve been doing research in dynamic assessment for a number of years to explore whether this is an option for children from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds. Two of my research studies focused on evaluation of children’s naming skills and included bilingual children in a Head Start program: Peña, Quinn, & Iglesias (1992) and Peña, Iglesias, & Lidz (2001).
We used a test-teach-retest approach with the kids in the study. Some children spoke only English, some spoke only Spanish, and some spoke both Spanish and English. We used the Expressive One Word Picture Vocabulary test to test all the children. When we tested them we let them respond in either language. It didn’t matter if they said the word in English or in Spanish, if they said the right name we counted it correct. This approach is called conceptual scoring. This approach is now built right into the latest version of the bilingual EOWPVT-2000. But, we didn’t stop there. If we had, we would have found that many of these children would have scored significantly below the group mean indicating language impairment. But, we knew that many children could not have language impairment. Language impairment occurs in about 7% of the population. So, stopping with only conceptual scoring would have resulted in too many false positives.
Next, we did individual interventions with children. Each child participated with an adult in a play-based intervention for 2, 20-30 minute sessions. We used books, puzzles, and toys centered around different themes (such as transportation, food, etc.). The goal of each session was to teach children about “special names.” We weren’t interested in just teaching children a list of words, we wanted them to understand the idea that we wanted them to use specific, single word labels. So, we taught them about different ways to refer to things (what they do, where they are, and what their special name is). We helped them to remember what the goal of the intervention was and to tell us the goal. We helped them think about what would happen if… (we didn’t call foods using a special name– maybe they’d end up with something they didn’t like, yuk!). We did all these interventions in Spanish and/or English depending on how the children responded. After the two sessions we tested them again using the same test given in the same way.
So, what happened? Well, almost all of the children improved their performance on the test. On average children improved by more than 1 standard deviation (after only two sessions). Children who did not improve as much, also showed less responsivity to teaching and were less efficient learners during the interventions. These are the children who we believe had true language impairment.
In all, I think that dynamic assessment can be a very powerful way to help us understand differences and disorders. Watching how chidren learn and how quickly they learn new language skills tell us about their underlying abilities. It does take some extra time, but I think the time is well worth it given the information you can gain that will help you make a clinical decision about a possible language learning impairment. Try it!