Spanish and English and narratives, oh my!

We know that narrative comprehension and production skills are important for classroom success, but it can be difficult to interpret narrative assessment results for our bilingual clients. Gibson et al. compared the performance of Spanish–English bilingual children with and without developmental language disorder* (DLD) in kindergarten and first grade on the Test of Narrative Language (TNL; administered in English). They found that:

  • Across all ages and tasks, children with typical development performed better than children with DLD.
  • On the overall TNL, kindergarteners with DLD had lower receptive than expressive scores, while typical children did not. This “gap” went away in first grade.

This suggests that narrative tasks are useful for diagnosing DLD in bilingual children, and that higher receptive than expressive skills are a potential red flag. But, an important note: the authors state that the TNL does not have enough bilingual children in its norms to diagnose DLD in this population. And, sure enough, the typical children in their study scored lower than the mean score on the TNL in kindergarten. We can still use the TNL or similar narrative tasks to describe the language abilities of bilingual children, though.


So we know that assessing bilingual children’s narratives is important, but where do we go from there? Here’s one idea: Miller et al. taught four school-age Spanish–English bilingual children with DLD to tell more-complete narratives using the Story Grammar Marker. If you’ve never seen one of these, it’s…kind of like an arts and crafts project? Each little doodad represents a story grammar element (e.g., setting, characters, problem). During one-on-one treatment sessions (three half hours per week, conducted in English), researchers taught story grammar elements, modeled stories, supported children’s retells, and encouraged independent retells. All children showed improvement on narrative organization, but improvements on measures of retell length, vocabulary, and grammar were mixed. This is a small study, but it’s the first to look at story grammar intervention in this population, and the initial results are promising.

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


Gibson, T. A., Peña, E. D., & Bedore, L. M. (2018). The receptive-expressive gap in English narratives of Spanish-English bilingual children with and without language impairment. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1044/2018_JSLHR-L-16-0432

Miller, R. D., Correa, V. I., & Katsiyannis, A. (2018). Effects of a story grammar intervention with repeated retells for English learners with language impairments. Communication Disorders Quarterly. doi: 10.1177/1525740117751897