When working with bilingual children, it is a matter of course that one will need to translate from one language to another. Children who are English language learners may need instructions or directions translated so that they can know what to do. Curricula may need to be translated to maximize learning. Tests are also translated for ease of assessment of knowledge in a given domain. In the area of speech and language assessment however, translation is not the best option. Why can’t we just translate speech and language tests?

It seems obvious to many of us I know, but I still keep hearing reports of standardized tests of English language ability being translated to another language for speech-language assessment. In fact just yesterday I heard that this was going on for determination of language impairment. So, I’ll say it again!! Languages are constructed differently.

For example, if you compare English and Spanish, there are sounds in common and sounds unique to each language. Articulation tests should represent the sounds of each language. So, for example, the word “chair” might test initial “ch”  and final “r” if you translate it to “silla” the sounds are different. A test would have to represent the sounds of the language it is targeting in the different positions in which those sounds are permitted. That’s what we did on the phonology subtest of the BESA.

Well, no kidding– of COURSE you wouldn’t translate an articulation test. But what about grammar?? We know that in English, children with language impairment have difficulties with verb tense. So, tests of grammar target past tense like, “the boy jumped into the lake.” Wouldn’t a translation be appropriate here? “El niño brinco al lago” is the translation, but past tense just isn’t that hard in Spanish! Neither are other verb tenses, so if you take a test of English grammar that has a bunch of items that are hard for children with language impairment and translate it, the Spanish version will be just too easy. What IS difficult for Spanish are articles, object clitics, gender.

Okay, okay but isn’t vocabulary the same?? NO IT ISN’T!!!! Word frequencies are different across languages. Some words are equally easy or difficult, but others are not. For example, mommy and mama are both acquired early. But, velocity is lower frequency than velocidad. Note the latest version of the EOWPVT-Bilingual Spanish edition and the EOWPVT-English edition– some words are different and in different order.

These differences in frequencies and in markers across languages are why different language versions of the same test (e.g., the Spanish and English CELF; the Spanish and English PLS) have different items. The BESA test also has different items in all the subtests (except pragmatics). This also means that you can’t translate the English versions of these tests to another language or translate the Spanish versions into English. The norms won’t work, and results will be different. I can’t think of any reason anyone would do this (but, I have heard of this being done– don’t be that person!)


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  1. #1 by Edris Harrell on February 1, 2014 - 1:28 pm

    Thinking I should send this post over to our locally esteemed children’s hospital who continues to insist on having interpreters translate the English PLS-5 into Spanish for preschoolers!

  2. #2 by Elizabeth D. Peña on February 1, 2014 - 1:34 pm

    Hi Edris– that is so strange, I just heard of this being done yesterday, which is what prompted my topic today. I heard that a school district was doing this, and there are Spanish versions available for these tests, so there’s really no excuse!

  3. #3 by sandra wagner on February 4, 2014 - 1:05 pm

    Hi, I write articles for our SLP newsletter (highly diversed school district) about ELL topics. This article is so well written about something I have been explaining over and over for years. I was wondering if I could “republish” it in our newsletter, all credit to you of course! Thanks!

  4. #4 by Elizabeth D. Peña on February 4, 2014 - 1:23 pm

    Sandra– you are welcome to republish– glad you found it useful!

  5. #5 by mj wright on February 12, 2014 - 1:47 pm

    Love the article. Agree with what it says…. BUT what are we supposed to do?

    Are there any good tests that exist that have reliable validity, sensitivity, and specificity. It is all well and good to tell us what not to do. However, what we really need is information on what to do.

    I work in a school district which has high numbers of ELL’s and not just those who’s first language is Spanish since we are also a refugee location. Every therapist I work with is desperate for good options. I have an elementary ed degree, SLP degree, and an ESL endorsement and still don’t really know what to do with student that are referred for evaluation and am frustrated with the lack of good resources. Not only am I frustrated but the excellent teachers I work with are also frustrated because they want their students to succeed and struggle when they become concerned that EL may not be making adequate progress fast enough and can end up end up referring the students to Special Ed because they don’t know what else to do.

    I am hesitant to identify ELL’s as having an language impairment because it seems to be such a fine line without many clear answers.

  6. #6 by sandra wagner on February 12, 2014 - 3:30 pm

    MJ, I work in a highly EL school district. I am bilingual and I do the testing, most of it that is. Here are some of the suggestions I give (based on research and what has worked for us): use parent interview as your starting point (first red flag is when parents are concerned about lang); use checklists from different teachers/staff working closely with student to get a better idea on who sees what and when as far as lang performance; lang samples are always ideal since student can freely elaborate (make sure you select topic that is not biased to his/her culture; e.g., what do you do on w/ends? what do you watch on TV and why you like it?). These ideas are all not standardized, but there is nothing on IDEA that mandates it. The law states we test “to the extent possible” with culturally and linguistically fair instruments. As for tests, I have recommended that a single vocab measure be used as BASELINE FOR EMERGING ENGLISH SKILLS or to get an initial idea on what he/she is picking up. Age equivalents are “better” than SS since it tells you how the EL student is performing as compared to native English speakers (e.g., if a K student with no English experience before K renders a AE 4-0 in say, the EVT, you can see that he is already at a 4-0 age and therefore making fast progress acquiring his second lang- I hope that made sense). The new OWLS II has a list of dialectal allowances (designed for black dialect, but many of them applied to Spanish). The best way to address your situation is to become familiar with main differences between languages (in phonology, syntax, etc) so you can tell difference/disorder in the “superficial” aspect; the lang aspect is the toughest, even when you are bilingual but the more evidence you have the better you’ll feel about your decision, your team’s decision. Don’t forget to include everything you tried in the report so no one will question you later on. Sorry about the 30mile long reply! Hope this helps. I have checklists, etc ready to share with you if you’d like. Just email me. Good luck. I’d like to read what Elizabeth thinks of my suggestions :0)

  7. #7 by Elizabeth D. Peña on February 12, 2014 - 6:14 pm

    The work in developing a test for different language groups is fairly slow. It took us 15 years to develop the BESA. For Spanish-English speakers there are at least a handful of options now, so there’s no real excuse for translating a test from English. That said, based on what we know about Spanish-English bilinguals there are some things that are starting to emerge as helpful. Dynamic assessment is certainly an option. We’ve found that a combination of the TNL and the TOLD-P does a fairly good job identifying LI in bilingual Spanish-English speakers– this is when we employ a formula based on children’s individual subtest scores on those tests (so a different cut point is employed). It’s possible that such a procedure would be an option for other language groups who know some English (at least 30%)

    I also think that you need to involve parents and carefully ask about the child’s performance in two languages. We developed (as part of the BESA) a set of questions that are pretty reliable in helping parents to pinpoint what is going on. It could be adapted to other languages I think knowing about what the breakdowns look like in those languages. I also think that this is where the difficulty with translation comes in. We need to learn about what other languages look like and what is difficult in those languages for likely markers of language impairment. So, perhaps adaptation from English rather than translation is a better option.

  8. #8 by Elizabeth D. Peña on February 12, 2014 - 6:17 pm

    MJ Wright– thanks for your comments. I think you bring up some excellent points for which there is no easy answer. Some ideas are above.

    Sandra– thanks for your reply, I think we were writing at the same time. Your comment popped up when I hit post. These are excellent suggestions and some that I’ve used clinically and in research. Thanks!

  9. #9 by jomawr on February 13, 2014 - 4:32 pm

    I am glad the BESA is now available.

    Also, I greatly appreciate the feedback. It is helpful to get some additional ideas to try and to have some of the things I do in my practice affirmed. I get a lot of questions from SLP’s in my district and want to be sure I am providing information based on best practices. I am consistently looking for information that will help improve assessment practices of ELL students and appropriate resources to share with other SLP’s or educators. I don’t want to be contributing to overidentification of ELL students in special education but at the same time I want to become better at assessing and identifying those who may have academic or speech and language needs.

    Sandra, I would love to see the checklists you use but am not sure how to get an email to you… I am new to blogging.

  10. #10 by sandra wagner on February 13, 2014 - 9:03 pm

    MJ, email me and I will reply with checklists at
    Take care.

  11. #11 by jomawr on February 14, 2014 - 10:17 am

    Elizabeth – can you provide more information/explanation on the use of “a formula based on children’s individual subtest scores on those tests (so a different cut point is employed).” How it is derived and or suggestions on development for use in our district.

    We have developed some local norms with some assessments we use but would like to know more specifics on what you have done with the the TNL and the TOLD-P.


  12. #12 by Elizabeth D. Peña on February 14, 2014 - 11:01 am

    here is the link to the paper:

    “SLPs can use the table below to create a spreadsheet that will generate the predicted probabilities of SLI. Five TOLD–P:3 and
    TNL composite scores should be entered into a spreadsheet that is capable of handling an exponential function (EXP in the
    formula below). The formula for each time point will need to be altered to refer to the column names (and appropriate cell) that are
    noted by the letters enclosed in parentheses in column headings. The formula should be copied and pasted into Column H
    with the revisions just described. Entering the composite values with the appropriate equation (e.g., First Grade Predicted
    Probability Equation) will provide the predicted probability value, as follows:
    Predicted probability = 1/{1 + EXP[–(1.8191 + –0.2183 × Expressive Composite + 0.0534 × Comprehension Composite
    + 0.1778 × Vocabulary Composite + –0.2633 × Grammatical Composite + –0.4618 × Narrative Composite)]}”

  13. #13 by Marybel R. Gonzalez on March 19, 2014 - 11:38 am

    Great blog! Thank you for posting. I am currently working on a project on typically developing Spanish-English bilingual children (first and second grade in public schools) as part of my doctoral work. One of the questions I am interested in is what are good measures for characterizing the language skills in each language, not only to determine how proficient they are in each language but also to capture changes in language skills as children acquire more academic skills. Currently I am focusing on receptive and expressive vocabulary, reading and narrative skills.
    One interesting factor that has come up, is that there are some tests, for instance the EOWPVT bilingual edition, which allows the child to answer either in English or Spanish. In contrast there are other assessments such as the WJ and the Woodcock Munoz which are administered separately for each language.

    So I am wondering, if I am interested in measuring language proficiency in each language, is it ok to administer the test separately in each language, or is it still more ecologically sound to administer the test in a bilingual format, allowing the child to answer in both languages?

    thank you!

  14. #14 by Elizabeth D. Peña on April 6, 2014 - 12:51 pm

    We allow the child to respond in either language, but for example on the BESA the examiner is instructed to stay in the language of the test, and not to translate test items. Then, we will give the other language version– which is not translated (usually on another day). I think this makes sense because we’re not asking the child to switch back and forth but if they do so naturally it’s okay, and at the same time we can see what they can do in each language.

  15. #15 by Elizabeth Harbaugh on May 2, 2014 - 10:14 pm

    Wow, this information is phenominal, AND written in a way that an undergrad student can understand 🙂 I’m so excited to become a bilingual speech pathologist. Reading blogs like this shows how far you’ve gone in not only developing better assessment methods but also, in better understanding the way bilingual childrens’ minds work. Yet it seems to me that there is still a huge gap between the amount of research that is now available and the actual implementation of that research throughout the United States. I’m working on my thesis right now, and Dr. Peña–your articles, as well as many other SLPs’ have been a huge HELP in better understanding these issues. Not only that, but also have made me so excited to go to grad school and finally begin working with bilingual children 🙂

  16. #16 by Mae on June 16, 2014 - 12:15 am

    thank you so much for this article. This is actually the topic we’ve been all discussing around, but you have hit the nail.
    Please do carry on 🙂

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  1. STUPID TRANSLATION | The Cuckoo's Nest

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