Administering vocabulary tests to bilingual children

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Assessing bilingual children’s vocabulary skills is challenging because they may know different words across their languages. One method to address this problem is conceptual scoring of vocab tests, in which the child gets credit for knowing the word in at least one language. For example, if the child misses the English word shoe but recalls the Spanish word zapato, he gets the point for that item.

One way to go about getting conceptual scores is to test the child in one language and switch to another to prompt any words the child doesn’t know. However, the child’s ability to switch between languages may be affected by language dominance or context, possibly affecting performance. Another way is to test the two languages separately, and then complete conceptual scoring by looking at the items across the tests. This method takes longer, but doesn’t require the child to switch between languages.

This study examined the effects of different test administration methods on conceptual vocabulary scores. Researchers administered the English and Spanish-English Bilingual versions of the Expressive One-Word Picture Vocabulary Test - Third Edition (EOWPVT-3 and EOWPVT-3 SBE) to elementary-age bilingual children—38 with developmental language disorder** (DLD) and 209 with typical language. They compared results from one session where both languages were prompted vs. separate sessions for each language (i.e., giving the EOWPVT-3 in English only, and the EOWPVT-3 SBE in Spanish only, and accepting correct answers on either test when scoring).* Children scored higher when conceptual scoring was used across independent administrations in each language than when they were prompted to switch languages within a single test administration. This suggests that switching between languages may negatively affect children’s performance, possibly causing us to underestimate their vocabulary skills.

But, wait! Who has time to administer basically the same test twice? The authors note that prompting only the missed items in the second language at the end of the test rather than switching back and forth with every item might be a good compromise, but that idea isn’t addressed by this study.

The authors also looked at whether using conceptual scoring resulted in accurate identification of children with DLD. No matter how the EOWPVT-3 was scored, it did not meet minimum standards for diagnosing DLD (i.e., sensitivity and specificity above 80%). This reinforces previous research (e.g., here and here) showing that vocabulary tests should be used only to describe children’s vocabulary abilities, not to diagnose DLD.

*See the full article for specifics on the different scoring methods. It gets a little tricky, since there are some items that shouldn’t be scored if you’re using the bilingual test norms.

**Note: The children in this study were those with Specific Language Impairment (SLI), which is a child with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) and normal nonverbal intelligence. We use DLD throughout our website for consistency purposes (read more here).

Anaya, J. B., Peña, E. D., & Bedore, L. M. (2017). Conceptual scoring and classification accuracy of vocabulary testing in bilingual children. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1044/2017_LSHSS-16-0081.