Can past tense accuracy during oral reading identify language disorder?

We know that difficulty with verb tense marking can be a good indicator of developmental language disorder (DLD). Errors in spontaneous speech can point to DLD in kids up through 1st grade; for older kids (10–12), you can look at their writing. But what about those middle grades? The authors of this study looked to past tense marking in oral reading. They recorded 21 children (ages 7–10) with DLD** and 30 children with typical language as they read passages from the Woodcock Reading Mastery Tests - 3rd Edition (WRMT-III) and scored their productions of regular past tense verbs for accuracy. They (helpfully!) provided the list of which verbs to score in each WRMT-III passage.

Results showed that children with DLD were less accurate than children with typical language in using regular past tense verbs when reading. Next, the authors looked at whether children’s past tense verb accuracy could correctly classify them as having DLD or typical language. Using 90% accuracy as the cutoff, sensitivity was 86% (so, pretty good for identifying children with DLD) and specificity was 73% (not as good at identifying children with typical language). Note that 80% sensitivity/specificity is generally considered the minimum acceptable level for a diagnostic test, so these numbers aren’t ideal. These results are preliminary, but if someone on the team is already giving the WRMT-III to a 2nd or 3rd grader with language concerns, you might consider adding the past tense accuracy score to your DLD assessment protocol.

**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).

Werfel, K. L., Hendricks, A. E., & Schuele, C. M. (2017). The potential of past tense marking in oral reading as a clinical marker of specific language impairment in school-age children. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 60(12), 3561-3572. doi: 10.1044/2017_JSLHR-L-17-0115.