Have you ever wondered why speech-language pathologists use certain tasks (and skip other tasks) to assess students’ language abilities? Did you know that performance on certain tasks can predict development language disorder (DLD) and reading difficulties? Research has shown that tasks including the elements of following directions, morphology, semantic relationships/manipulation, narrative/retelling and restating information can provide clinicians with critical information regarding student’s strengths and weaknesses.

Studies have shown that “following directions” tasks correlate with working memory functioning and are also sensitive to reading deficits (Laheny and Bloom, 1994; Cowan, 1996; Baddeley, 2003). Grammatical structure deficits, particularly in the area of tense-marking and agreement including past “-ed,” third person singular “-s,” “be,” and “do” etc., are sensitive to language deficits (Rice & Wexler, 1996; Loeb and Leonard, 1991; Oetting and Horohov, 1997; van der Lely and Ullman, 2001). Vocabulary breadth, depth, quality as well as manipulation tasks (e.g., naming definitions, synonyms, relationships among semantically related words, explaining multiple meaning words, etc.) are also sensitive to language deficits. Children with DLD possess “not only fragile knowledge of the core meaning of individual words, but fragile semantic connections between words” (Nation, 2014, p. 2). A common misconception surrounds one-word vocabulary tests. Often, one-word vocabulary tests are used in the assessment process to qualify children for speech and language services (Betz, Eickhoff, & Sullivan, 2013), however, studies have found that single vocabulary tests have poor psychometric properties and/or are not representative of linguistic competence embedded in life activities (Gray et al., 1999; Ukrainetz & Blomquist, 2002; Bogue, DeThorne, Schaefer, 2014). In fact, single word vocabulary tests can overinflate testing scores and not represent the child’s true expressive language competence. Even when a student truly has solid or even superior vocabulary knowledge and naming skills, it does not mean that they can effectively utilize these abilities during narrative production as well as reading and writing tasks.

When assessing a student’s narrative skills, it can reveal a vast amount of information regarding their language abilities. When students are asked to provide a narrative, it shows their ability to sequence as well as recall relevant details which is an indicator of working memory. Narratives also provide an opportunity to assess a student’s grammatical sentence structures, run-on sentences, as well as the use of temporal markers and cohesive ties to connect the story. Vocabulary can also be assessed through the use of narratives. For example, does the student use immature vocabulary terms or age-level? Does the student have word retrieval issues or do they present with lexical fluency? Lastly, narratives can provide inside into pragmatics and perspective taking through the use of anaphoric references, insight into character’s feelings, beliefs, and thoughts, and topic cohesion and coherence. To assess a student’s narrative abilities in preschool, clinicians can utilize wordless picture books and ask students to make their own story. In early elementary, clinicians can present students with picture books and then ask students questions related to the story. In middle and high school, students can be asked to summarize a read book or a viewed movie as a quick and efficent way to assess multiple areas of language. These methods can provide more detailed information regardinging macrostructural (story grammar elements, perspective taking, etc.) and microstructural elements (vocabulary, syntax, and grammar) as well as child’s thought process and socio-emotional functioning.


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