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Ellen L. Jacobs, Ph.D., CCC/SLP
University of Nebraska at Omaha
KIDTALK© is a different approach to identifying language learning disabilities (LLD) in diverse populations, including individuals who are users of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems. Persons with LLD have exceptional difficulty acquiring language even though they have typical or even above-average abilities in the nonlinguistic areas of development (Gerber, 1993). It is important to be on the lookout for language learning impairments in AAC users (Blischak, 1994). It is also important to find a new method of identifying LLD in the population of AAC system users because currently used methods are designed for use with the mainstream English speaking population; none include AAC users in their standardization sample (Yoder, Warren, & Biggar, 1997; Sevick & Romski, 1997). The traditional methods therefore tend to be socio-culturally and linguistically biased (van Kleek, 1994). Individuals who are users of AAC systems have different backgrounds both socio-culturally and linguistically (Light & McNaughton, 1993; Light & Kelford Smith, 1993; Pierce & McWilliam, 1993) and need modified assessment tools to tap their actual abilities (Romski & Sevcik, 1996, Romski & Sevcik, 1999). Some recent texts briefly discuss different types of test accommodations for individuals with disabilities (e.g., Glennen & Decost, 1997; Lloyd, Fuller, & Arvidson, 1997; McLoughlin & Lewis, 1994). Others have devoted full chapters to the subject (Salvia & Ysseldyke, 1998; Thurlow, Elliott, & Ysseldyke, 1998). However, there has been little published research on the impact of test adaptations on standardized test results (Arvidson, 1998). The result of the use of traditional assessment methods and their adaptations has been the misidentification of individuals who have normal language learning ability and the misunderstanding of these individuals' true linguistic capabilities. In other words, it is likely that some individuals who use AAC systems have been identified as LLD when in fact, they are able to learn language just fine.
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KIDTALK© stands for Kidtalk Interactive Diagnostic Test of Aptitude for Language Knowledge. When I created this computerized test, I based it on a framework of three theoretical principles. I hypothesized that the principles could be effectively applied to all age, socio-cultural, linguistic, and motoric-ability groups. I derived the principles from an extensive literature review in several domains: language learnability in individuals who are typically developing, language learnability in individuals who are LLD, linguistic universals, computerized language testing, and assessment of the language of AAC system users. I will present these principles below. Then I will describe the making of KIDTALK©; I will provide a synopsis of the KIDTALK© studies that have already taken place; and finally I will discuss a new KIDTALK© research question, involving AAC system users, that I am currently investigating.
Principle 1 is that a language learning disability can be identified by testing an individual's potential for acquiring linguistic features of a novel language. Test norms that employ this principle would be based on an individual's language learning aptitude rather than on his or her level of development in the language spoken by the mainstream population. This means that the individual's language development would not be compared unfairly to that of the mainstream population.
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Principle 2 is that individuals with LLD can be distinguished from individuals who are not LLD but have different socio-cultural and linguistic backgrounds, by using assessment tools containing test items that meet two criteria: (a) especially difficult (linguistically) for those with LLD while relatively easy (linguistically) for those who are non-LLD, and (b) equally difficult for groups of individuals having typical socio-cultural and linguistic backgrounds (mainstream English-speaking population) and individuals having different socio-cultural and linguistic backgrounds (AAC system user population and other minority groups). After reviewing the literature, I proposed the following procedures for meeting these two criteria.
I proposed that the first criterion could be met by exposing the individual to a novel language (the invented language, "Kidtalk") through a story in which words are auditorily embedded in an ongoing context (children dressed in brightly-colored costumes acting out the story and speaking to each other in Kidtalk; shown in video format). Following this exposure, the individual would be tested on his or her comprehension and expression of the story vocabulary. Research indicates that in general, children with LLD have difficulty with vocabulary learning (Weismer, 1994; Weismer & Hesketh, 1996) and more specifically, with "fast mapping," a word learning strategy that allows children to learn at least the partial meaning of a word after only minimal exposure (Rice, Buhr, & Nemeth, 1990; Rice, Buhr, & Oetting, 1992; Rice, Oetting, Marquis, Bode, & Pae, 1994). Hunt Berg (1996) investigated how children who were learning language with AAC used pointing cues to learn the meaning of unfamiliar "nonsense" spoken words and graphic symbols. Her findings suggested that fast mapping may be an important skill for children who use graphic symbols as well. In addition, children with LLD tend to show marked difficulties in two other areas: (a) expressive morphology (Connell & Stone, 1992; Leonard, Bortolini, Caselli, McGregor, & Sabbadini, 1992; Leonard, McGregor, & Allen, 1992; Nakamura, Plante, & Swisher, 1990; Roseberry & Connell, 1991) and (b) auditory-verbal sequential memory (Fazio, 1996; Gillam, Cowan, & Day, 1995; Kamhi, Gentry, Mauer, & Gholson, 1990; Weismer & Hesketh, 1996). Thus, exposing the individuals to the morphology and the phrase structure of the novel language--then testing these two skill areas--would be important additions to the computerized test.
I proposed that the second criterion could be met by basing the Kidtalk language on socio-cultural and linguistic universals [(e.g., "food" and "drink" in Kidtalk are "buni" and "deni"); see Slobin (1973 & 1985) for rationale on use of universals] and on socio-cultural and linguistic innovations (e.g., whimsical creatures that no one has seen before--"baba," "yeye," "kuku," "bibi"). In addition, the computerized test would allow various types of response modes to meet the needs of individuals with mobility/physical/orthopedic disabilities.
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Principle 3 is that LLD can be identified efficiently and easily with the aid of computer technology. Research indicates that computer applications are particularly suitable for measuring an individual's potential for learning; have positive effects on motivation and attention; and facilitate the speed, accuracy, and ease of test administration and scoring (Clymer, 1991; Cochran & Bull; Greenwood & Rieth, 1994; Guthrie & Richardson, 1995; Holzberg, 1995, 1996; Irvin & Walker, 1994; King & Alloway, 1993; Kolich, 1991; McGregor, Drossner, & Axelrod, 1990; Meyers, 1994; Ransley, 1991; Rowland & Scott, 1992; Schery & O'Connor, 1992; Schrader, 1990; Steiner & Larson, 1991; Walker, Elliot, & de Lacey, 1994; Wiig, Jones, & Wiig, 1996). Furthermore, computer technology opens up the world of assessment to individuals with physical disabilities because of the multitude of computer access methods that are now available.
Before putting the original design of KIDTALK© on the computer, I trialed it by using puppets, static pictures, and my own voice. I piloted this form of the test with elementary school-age children and I systematically modified it until an appropriate level of difficulty was obtained for each subtest. This process included nine piloted versions. I then took the ninth piloted version and, in 1994, made the first computerized version using the authoring programs: Authorware Professional (1992), Director (1991), and SoundEdit 16 (1994). This included the presentation of a video; which was followed by four subtests, each of which was computer administered and scored. The four subtests utilized animated cartoon versions of the characters shown in the video. The first subtest measured receptive vocabulary; the second, expressive vocabulary; the third, expressive morphology, and the fourth, auditory-verbal sequential memory.
In 1994, I piloted KIDTALK© with 60 school-age children, 39 who were non-LLD and 21 who had been previously identified by the school system as LLD. This exploratory study was successful (see Jacobs, 1998). Results of a two-by-two factorial analysis of variance (ANOVA) indicated that there was a significant difference (p<.000l) between the test scores of children who were LLD and those who had typically developing language. Results also showed that there was not a significant difference in test scores between the two socio-culturally/linguistically different groups used in the study (Anglo/English-speaking and Hispanic/Spanish-speaking). There was also no interaction effect shown by the ANOVA, meaning that the lower performance of the children with LLD did not depend upon whether they were Anglo/English-speaking or Hispanic/Spanish speaking.
Since then, I have received funding from the University of Nebraska at Omaha Committee on Research and a grant from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association to further study the effectiveness of KIDTALK© with various populations. As of this date, the test has been piloted 5 times. Each pilot has involved a different version of the original test to meet the needs of different populations of children, ages 3 through 8. Each pilot has revealed a substantial amount of information which has served to systematically control for variables that may have an effect on test performance.
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Currently, I am piloting a 6th version of KIDTALK©; one that addresses the needs of individuals who use AAC systems. This version of KIDTALK© allows scanning (with switch or mouse access) and direct select (with touch screen or adapted keyboard access) for the receptive vocabulary and the auditory-verbal sequential memory subtests; and auditory scanning (with switch or mouse response) for the expressive vocabulary and expressive morphology subtests. All other procedures remain the same as in previous versions of the test. I am investigating the following research question: "Is there a difference in test scores between the two socio-culturally/linguistically different groups (AAC-system-users and non-AAC-system-users)?" I am hypothesizing that there will be no significant difference in test scores between these two groups. Individuals included in this pilot study are placed in one of two groups. Group 1 consists of elementary-school-age users of AAC systems who have no known cognitive deficits. Group 2 consists of elementary-school-age students who have typical socio-cultural and linguistic backgrounds and no known cognitive deficits. Every child is given the same version of the test although their response modes vary, depending on their individual needs (e.g., scanning or direct-select). Each typically developing child is matched in age with an AAC system user and is required to use the same response mode as his or her AAC-system-user peer.
The test and research procedures will be described to the participants in this presentation. A demonstration of the test will be given. Statistical as well as descriptive results of the study will be shared with the audience. Attendees will be given the opportunity to try the test out, and a discussion/feedback time will be incorporated into the session.
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