An open question in working with bilingual children who have language impairment is the extent to which they make gains in each of their two languages. We can look to children with typical development to document what we should expect through regular schooling and home interactions, and we can also track children with language impairment. We did this through looking at children’s retells in Spanish and English. Children included those with and without language impairment and they were followed from kindergarten to first grade.
Using the protocol described by Francis, Iglesias, and Miller, children retold stories from wordless picture books (Mercer Mayer’s Frog Stories). We collected stories in English and in Spanish. Both macro- and microstructures were coded in both languages both years. Macro-structure is the general structure or organization of a story. Micro-structure refers to the details of the story. In development, children seem to first learn story structure (macro) and later start filling in with the details of a story using literate language (micro).
Macrostructure was coded using seven elements of stories from a story grammar perspective. These included character, setting, initiating event, plan, action, consequence, internal response. These were each score from 0 to 3 indicating the level of complexity of each element included in the story.
Microstructure was coded using with an adaptation of the Monitoring Indicators of Scholarly Language (MISL; Gillam, Gillam, & Reece, 2012) tool. The tool included scoring of coordinating conjunctions, subordinating conjunctions, mental and linguistic verbs, adverbs, and elaborated noun phrases. Each was scored from 0 to 3. A score of 3 on a given item indicated that the child used complex forms of the target structure.
Our results indicated that typically developing children scored higher than children with language impairment. There were also significant changes over time with children performing higher in first grade compared to kindergarten. But, English and Spanish language scores were pretty similar. What is important here is that both children with language impairment and with typical development demonstrated gains in macro-structure from kindergarten to first grade. Also, they made changes in both languages.
On the other hand, microstructure changes were different. There were significant changes in micro-structure in Spanish microstructure from kindergarten to first grade for children with typical development. But, they didn’t make similar changes in English. Children with language impairment did no demonstrate microstructure changes in either language.
We think that our results make sense given that macrostructure develops first ahead of microstructure. Even though children generally balanced in their Spanish and English use, they had more long-term experience with Spanish. It may be that their Spanish was developed to a point where they could add the literate details, but that they needed more experience to be able to do this in English. For children with language impairment, it may be that they need to get a firmer grip on the basic story structure before they can start adding details to their stories.
These results have implications for planning intervention for bilinguals as well. And, the results provide more evidence that bilingualism does not negatively affect children with language impairment along with implications for using narratives for intervention.