Language sample analysis: time consuming and complicated. Maybe. But it’s also one of the most effective diagnostic and monitoring tools SLPs have to help our clients. I have dedicated the last 30-odd years of my life to researching language sample analysis, striving to make it both easier and more effective for SLPs to use in their practice. Today I’d like to share with you why I am so committed to language sample analysis and why I believe it is an essential tool in every SLP’s toolkit.
More than 70 years ago speech and language pathologists came to recognize that recording the speech of our clients offers us a powerful tool for both research and practice. Language samples allow us to capture speech as it happens, even from outside the regular clinical perspective. We can capture the perspective of a child speaking to her parents, for example, almost as easily as we can record a client talking with a clinician. The recording itself becomes a nuanced record of that speech, allowing us to review and revisit earlier moments as therapy progresses.
But to get the most benefit from a language sample, we need more than just the audio/visual file. We need to transform that information into a standardized text that can be used for analysis. In other words, we need to transcribe the sample. A written transcript allows us to really dig into the sample, pulling apart the language used by our client. What words did she use? Were they inflected correctly? Were her sentences grammatically correct? Which grammatical forms does she misuse? Did her sentences make sense semantically? Was her conversation coherent and on topic? By picking apart a language sample we can look at all of these questions and more, in depth and on our own timeline.
But it is when your single client’s transcript is put into the context of that 70 years of research that it gets really interesting and valuable. That language sample becomes comparable against measures that have been decades in the making. Over the years researchers using language samples have created measures for a variety of important issues:
- Developmental status (Miller, 1981; Paul, 2007)
- Across languages (Berman & Slobin, 1994)
- Bilingual language skills at all language levels (Miller, et.al., 2006)
- Documenting the importance of oral language for acquiring literacy skills (Snow, 1983; Miller, et.al., 2006)
- Tracing continued language development beyond adolescence (Nippold, 1998; 2014)
- Documenting disordered performance (Paul, 2007)
Suspect a child may be on the autism spectrum? Children on the spectrum often have specific social reciprocity issues which are evident in conversation: responses to questions, direct or indirect; topic maintenance; and general attentiveness. If you suspect a child has a problem, how can you gather the raw data that you need to make a solid clinical judgement – and one that can convince possibly skeptical parents? A conversational language sample provides the raw data, a transcript of the child talking. That transcript can then be analyzed for each feature associated with the suspected problem. How many questions were asked? How many answered correctly for form and how many for form and content? Were topics followed, changed, or ignored? Was the child attentive to the examiner or ignoring prompts for responding? We can look at each element in turn and in depth. And the icing on the convincing cake? The results can then be compared against standardized measures to show where the child excels or where they have difficulty relative to appropriate peers and relative to the autism spectrum.
Is a student struggling with literacy? Narrative skills are essential for success in early elementary grades where literacy is a primary focus. Spoken language is the foundation of mastering reading and writing. A narrative language sample allows us to do a deep dive into the student’s use of language features commonly associated with performance deficits: vocabulary; complex syntax; verbal fluency (a micro analysis); and narrative structure (a macro analysis). Again, these results can then be compared against standardized measures in order to give us additional insight. What do we expect of students relative to these measures through elementary grades? My own research – which formed the basis of the SALT databases – provides grade level expectations for more than 50 measures for typical students grades K – 12. The details for all measures including he complex syntax analysis (Subordination Index) and the narrative structure analysis (Narrative Scoring Scheme) are available for free through SALT.
Language sample analysis is time and resource intensive. It is not a matter of recording the sample alone; there is the challenge of transcribing that audio, extracting the relevant data, and interpreting the data in a way that is useful for you and your client. It’s not surprising that a lot of SLPs question whether the benefits really outweigh the difficulty. Many future blog posts will address the difficulties of LSA, providing strategies and encouragement for overcoming them. In this post, I hope that I have been able to convince you of the benefit. Language sample analysis provides the opportunity to document performance, to compare your client against accepted measures, to confirm the identification of an impairment, and to monitor changes associated with intervention. These procedures give you the evidence base for your clinical practice.
Berman, R. & Slobin, D. (1994) Relating events in narrative: A crosslinguistic developmental study. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum
Miller, J. (1981) Assessing Language Production in Children: Experimental Procedures, Second Edition New York: Allyn and Bacon.
Miller, J., Heilmann, J., Nockerts, A., Iglesias, A., Fabiano, L., & Francis, D. (2006) “Oral language and reading in bilingual children.” Learning Disabilities Research to Practice. 2(1) 30-43.
Nippold, M. (1998) Later Language Development: The School-age and Adolescent Years. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed
Nippold, M. (2014) Language Sampling with Adolescents: Implications for Intervention. San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing
Paul, R. (2007) Language Disorders from Infancy through Adolescence, Third Edition. St. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsevier
Snow, C. (1983) “Literacy and language: Relationships during the preschool years.” Harvard Educational Review 53, 165 – 189