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Faculty develop Spanish screener for language disorders

May 08, 2008

Two faculty members in ASU’s Department of Speech and Hearing Science and a faculty member in the Mary Lou Fulton College of Education has been awarded a $1.6 million grant to develop a Spanish language screening measure to identify children at risk for language impairment. The four-year grant has been funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences.

There are currently no measures of language impairment designed specifically for Spanish speaking children. Existing tools have been translated from English to Spanish with the assumption that a translation is a valid measure. However, the tools do not take into account, changes in language complexity, cultural background or literacy. This can result in unidentified language impairment in children who need treatment or in children who have typical language abilities being identified as having a language disorder.

“Tests that are available now are culturally or linguistically biased,” says Laida Restrepo, associate professor in the department of speech and hearing science.

“They are based on experience. So if you don’t know the vocabulary or if you don’t know the forms that others are using, you are penalized. Because these children don’t have the same experiences as English-speaking children or may not have the advantage of a highly literate environment, a screener is needed that recognizes these differences.”

Shelley Gray, a speech and hearing associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is on Restrepo’s team, along with Joanna Gorin, assistant professor in the Mary Lou Fulton College of Education.

“With the current instruments, children are not being accurately identified. When children are tested outside of their native language with improper tools, it raises an issue of validity,” says Gorin, an expert in educational assessment design and analysis.

The team will develop dynamic tasks for the screener that will control for experience and culture.

“We are developing tasks that evaluate language and evaluate abilities that could contribute to the problem a child’s having. Dynamic learning tasks assess how your brain is functioning while you learn the new material. And that is different than most tests that evaluate knowledge at one point in time. But dynamic learning tasks actually allow you to watch children learn something new and see the problem by the mistakes a child makes, or the amount of effort it takes for the task,” notes Gray.

Gorin will help create the new screening measure in Spanish working with Spanish language items, for children ages four to eight, generated by Restrepo and Gray. She said this unique collaboration exemplifies the benefit of leveraging expert knowledge from different disciplines.

“This is an exciting project for me because it really hits on my primary emphasis, which is merging substantive theory with assessment design and analysis. So few projects I work on can do that,” Gorin says. “It’s incredibly important to start out with a well-specified model of what you’re trying to measure or it’s basically going to have a lot of noise and error in it.”

The goal is to design an assessment that is easy to administer and score by paraprofessionals in Arizona schools.

Notes Restrepo, “There are still not enough highly qualified bilingual personnel in Arizona schools. So often you have people with a high school degree working as a teacher’s aide or paraprofessional. We want them to be able to administer the screener easily, without requiring knowledge of technical information.”

The hope is to develop a universal screening tool for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students across the United States and for speech-language pathologists to assess first- through-second-grade students who have been referred by teachers, physicians or parents.

The belief is that early and accurate identification of learning impairment risk will lead to timely evaluation, identification and treatment. As a result, English language learners can be more successful academically, which ultimately impacts academic achievement in U.S. schools.

“Often times we get referrals of Latino children who are already too far behind in their education. So this screener will help identify children at risk and provide them with services early and access the services they should be receiving,” says Restrepo.

Adds Gorin, “Pre-school and school aged children should be screened as soon as they go to school. It’s really important for early intervention. The earlier children that have disorders get help the better you can prevent children from failing in school, and as Laida said, it has clinical application and it has educational application for our own research and others as well.”

“As speech-pathologists know, there are no validated language screening measures available for Spanish-speaking children. Now there will be a tool that researchers and speech-language pathologists can use to identify children at risk for language impairment.”

Verina Martin,


Mary Lou Fulton College of Education