Throwback (2013): Diagnosing DevLangDis in English learners

Your Mission: 

  • Accurately identify ELL children with language impairments

DANGER! Potential Hazards!

  • “Waiting and seeing” so long you lose the benefits of early intervention

  • Over-referral of typical English learners to Special Ed

Fortunately, there are a decent number of assessments around for Spanish-English bilinguals, but for the one million kids out there with less common home languages? Yeah, pretty much nothing. Until the day we have a Tagalog–English CELF, we have to improvise.


These researchers wondered whether they could discriminate typical vs. language-impaired ELL children based on a handful of English-only assessments and a parent questionnaire, which asked about development of the L1 and asked parents to compare their child to other kids they know. The kids were around kindergarten age, from immigrant families with a diverse assortment of home languages, and hadn’t had regular English exposure before age three.

They were able to reach over 90% diagnostic accuracy with a combination of their parent questionnaire (the most important factor by far), tests of nonword repetition and tense morphology (from the CTOPP and TEGI, respectively, which together made a smaller but still important contribution), and a narrative task (the ENNI, which was the least important factor). They also gave the PPVT, but that wasn’t helpful. This makes sense, because we already know it’s not good at diagnosing DLD in anybody.

Bottom Line: You can differentiate young ELL children with language disorder from their typically-developing ELL peers IF…

  1. You get good input from the parent on L1 development
  2. You test the skills that are known to be hard for ALL kids with DLD (like nonword repetition and tense morphology). Don’t rely on tests of single-word vocabulary.
  3. You compare ELL kids to one another, not the monolingual norming sample of most assessments. See if ELL norms are available for the tests you use!

Paradis, J., Schneider, P., & Sorenson, T. (2013). Discriminating Children with Language Impairment Among English-Language Learners from Diverse First-Language Backgrounds. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 56, 917–981.


*Recall that we put out “Throwback Pubs” in months where there isn’t enough new, clinically-relevant research to review.