Recently, Lisa and I had the privilege of speaking about descriptive assessments to a graduate class at Arizona State University. We are both graduates of ASU and it was truly an honor to have the opportunity to speak to this future group of SLPs. I have shared in a previous post that I loved my education at ASU. I participated in a program that allowed me to receive my education while working in the field. The best part was knowing what I didn’t know and being able to attend classes to seek that information. There were times when I felt that some of what was being taught was unrealistic, but it set the bar high and encouraged me to reach it.
Language sample analysis - this was one of the many things we were taught where I saw the importance of it but not how to do it efficiently in the real world. In graduate school, we used the program SALT to analyze our samples and all I remember feeling is frustration and confusion. Transcribing a 50 utterance sample word for word is time consuming enough, and then trying to determine clauses and enter in conventions for morphemes, omissions, punctuation, and mazes takes it to a whole new level. I spent hours and hours trying to transcribe a language sample with this program. I am sure with enough practice it would come a little easier, but it is by no means a quick project. When we showed up to present at ASU, the professor had just finished explaining to the students how to do their SALT transcriptions. I saw a lot of panic and confusion on their faces. It is overwhelming, and typically when something is difficult and uncomfortable we avoid it. And that is what I fear happens with most SLPs…they skip this essential step in assessing a student because it is difficult and uncomfortable.
How can we make it easier and do we really need to do it?
I don’t know if we have all the answers for how to make it easier, but I do think we have found a way to simplify the process and still collect important data. And yes, we do need to do it. Descriptive data is probably the most important information you can gather about a student. It is not only the best indicator of their functional communication skills, but research also shows that a student’s narrative ability is a predictor of academic success. With a quality language sample, we are able to measure a student’s form, content, and use. This is valuable information for qualifying a student for services, but unlike standardized assessments, it is also an excellent way to plan treatment. Because of this, we have included a section to collect a language sample, narrative retell, or summary in all of our Present Level Assessments (PLAs). Rather than transcribing word for word, or completing MLU/type token ratio analyses, we have included these areas to consider as the student is participating in a conversation or narrative:
- Did they sequence the information in a logical order with smooth transitions?
- Did they provide sufficient detail rather than requiring the conversational partner to ask continual questions?
- Is the sentence length appropriate?
- Do they establish and maintain referents?
- Are they providing semantically appropriate responses (response matches the question form)?
- Are they exhibiting efficient word retrieval and using specific vocabulary?
- Do they demonstrate typical pragmatics?
- Any articulation, voice, or fluency concerns?
- During a retell did they organize the story with a beginning, middle, and an end?
- Did they include story grammar elements (character, setting, emotions, problem, actions, outcome)?
- Did they include key vocabulary from the story?
- Are they using complete sentences with age-appropriate grammar?
These sections of the PLAs are not necessarily checklists, but a guide to quickly assess language abilities in these authentic contexts. There are plenty of spaces to write in comments and examples. I personally prefer to type all of what they are saying in the comment box so that I can look it over and assess these areas after I finish, but Lisa prefers to assess while the student is speaking and provide samples in the comment box under each skill.
We know first hand the demands of a school-based SLP, and that completing a language sample is sometimes a luxury that we can’t afford. We hope we have created a method to simplify the process but still allow for gathering this critically important information. Give it a try and let us know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.