New assessment could reduce learning disorder misdiagnoses among bilingual children

January 30, 2014

As a San Francisco-based speech-language consultant in the mid-1980s, Elizabeth Peña noticed a discouraging trend. At one elementary school, speech-language pathologists had diagnosed every English-Spanish bilingual kindergartner with a language learning disability.

Doubting that every child had a learning disability, Peña—now a communication sciences and disorders professor at The University of Texas at Austin Moody College of Communication—made it her mission to reduce learning disorder misdiagnoses among English-Spanish bilingual children.

Peña and other researchers have introduced the Bilingual English-Spanish Assessment (BESA), which will help speech-language pathologists differentiate limited exposure to English from underlying language impairments among children ages 4 to 6 years, 11 months.

Conducted through Moody College's Human Abilities in Bilingual Language Acquisition Lab, research was funded by the National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Other researchers included Moody College Professor Lisa Bedore, San Diego State University Professor Vera Gutiérrez-Clellen, Temple University Professor Aquiles Iglesias, and La Salle University School of Nursing and Health Sciences Dean Brian Goldstein.

"Most standardized language assessments are developed for English speakers, and the assessments that are developed for Spanish speakers are focused on students who are monolingual or who mostly speak Spanish," Peña said. "But if students have a fairly balanced understanding of each language, which assessment do you give? That's why we developed the BESA."

Since the BESA's December publication, speech-language pathologists in private practice, schools and clinical settings across the U.S. have placed orders, according to AR-Clinical Publications owner Nancy Martin. A subsidiary of San Rafael, Calif.-based AbigSys Research, AR-Clinical Publications was formed to publish bilingual assessment materials.

The BESA is designed specifically for bilingual speakers and focuses on the features of Spanish and English that are most associated with language impairment. In Spanish, for example, children with language impairments tend to make more mistakes with articles that mark number and gender. In English, children with language impairments tend to have difficulties learning past tenses.

Unlike other assessments, the BESA also provides guidance for combining test scores from English and Spanish versions to reach a diagnostic decision.

In research presented at the 2013 American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Convention, recent University of Cincinnati Ph.D. graduate Rochel Lazewnik found the BESA to be the most highly discriminating of five standardized tests for predicting language impairment among bilingual children.

The BESA's key strengths are that it includes English and Spanish subtests and items based on the linguistic characteristics and cultural practices of bilingual English-Spanish children, Lazewnik said.

Kai Greene, who earned his Ph.D. in communication sciences and disorders from the Moody College in 2012 and has worked for more than 10 years as a bilingual certified speech-language pathologist in Texas and California, said the BESA is a huge step in the right direction for speech-language pathologists, educators, administrators and parents.

"Sadly, much work still needs to be done in terms of educating school administrators, teachers and parents about many of the unique factors that revolve around bilingual language learning," said Greene, now an assistant professor at California State University, East Bay. "The issue of overdiagnosis persists in that bilingual children's language differences are mistaken as disorders."

Casey Taliancich, a communication sciences and disorders doctoral candidate, said such a test would help her in her position as a speech-language pathologist in Dallas.

"With the assessment we've been using, it's difficult to get a comprehensive picture of language needs," Taliancich said. "I'm confident that this new assessment will be an efficient tool for speech- pathologists."

Explore further: Study links bilingual babies' vocabulary to early brain differentiation

Related Stories

Study examines role of bilingualism in children's development

February 8, 2012

A new study on children who are raised bilingual examined the effects on children's development of growing up speaking two languages. The study found that different factors were responsible for the language- and non-language-related ...

Study shows bilingual children have a two-tracked mind

July 11, 2013

Adults learning a foreign language often need flash cards, tapes, and practice, practice, practice. Children, on the other hand, seem to pick up their native language out of thin air. The learning process is even more remarkable ...

Study finds potential key to learning a new language

November 20, 2013

A new study by University of Houston (UH) researchers may lead to dramatic changes in the way language is taught and learned – especially a second language. These findings are important because statistics show 60 percent ...

Recommended for you

Serious research into what makes us laugh

November 24, 2015

More complex jokes tend to be funnier but only up to a point, Oxford researchers have found. Jokes that are too complicated tend to lose the audience.

Psychologists dispute continuum theory of sexual orientation

November 19, 2015

Washington State University researchers have established a categorical distinction between people who are heterosexual and those who are not. By analyzing the reported sexual behavior, identity and attraction of more than ...

Babies have logical reasoning before age one, study finds

November 18, 2015

Human infants are capable of deductive problem solving as early as 10 months of age, a new study by psychologists at Emory University and Bucknell finds. The journal Developmental Science is publishing the research, showing ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.