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Focus on Bilingualism: Why Conceptual Scoring?

By: Ellen Kester, Ph.D., CCC-SLP and Alejandro Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP
Understanding the whole language system of children who understand and speak two languages is a challenge for a number of reasons. First, we cannot get the whole picture by looking at only one language. Second, every bilingual has a unique profile of proficiency levels in their two languages and strengths in different topic areas. Third, the children who make up the normative samples for English tests are overwhelmingly if not completely monolingual. Conceptual scoring is an approach that allows evaluators a view of the language system as a whole, rather than two separate systems (Kester & Peña, 2002; Pearson, Fernandez, & Oller, 1992, 1993).
Why we cannot get the whole picture through one language
A number of studies have demonstrated that bilingual children understand and use different vocabulary and concepts in each language. This is a result of their different experiences in their two languages. It is common to see students who hear and speak Spanish or Vietnamese or Urdu at home and who receive instruction in English at school. The content of conversation varies between home and school, resulting in different vocabularies across the two languages. Several studies exploring vocabulary across languages in bilingual children have provided evidence for the variation in vocabulary across languages. Jackson-Maldonado et al (2003) found that of the words parents reported in the inventories of their bilingual children, approximately 30% of them were noted in both languages, while 70% were unique to one language or the other. Similarly, Peña, Bedore, and Zlatic-Giunta (2002) found that in a category generation task with children ages 4 to 7, 30% of the concepts produced were represented in both languages and 70% were unique to one of the languages. Given this information, it is clear that if only one language is evaluated, language skills will be underestimated. Thus, it is critical to assess skills in both languages and consider the whole language system.
Conceptual scoring is an informal approach to the assessment process with bilingual children. Conceptual scoring can take different forms. One approach is to do complete testing in two languages and then examine which skills are demonstrated in both languages as well as skills that are unique to one language or the other. Zimmerman, Steiner, and Pond (2002) accepted responses in both languages for the Preschool Language Scale-4-Spanish and are taking conceptual scoring a step further in the fifth edition of their test which is due out later this year or early next year. The Preschool Language Scale-5-Spanish (Zimmerman, Steiner, & Pond, in press) has Spanish and English versions of each item. All of the items the child misses in Spanish are administered in English as well and responses in either language are accepted. This approach allows for a more complete picture of language skills.
While there are many different approaches to conceptual scoring, the important feature is that the whole picture of the bilingual child is obtained. This will involve formal and informal measures, as well as keen examiner judgment regarding the patterns noted across the two languages.
Jackson-Maldonado, D., Thal, D., Marchman, V., Newton, T.,Fenson, L., & Conboy, B. (2003). El Inventario del Desarrollo de Habilidades Comunicativas [Communicative Development Inventory].
Kester, Ellen Stubbe & Elizabeth D. Peña (2002). Language ability assessment of Spanish-English bilinguals: future directions. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 8(4).
Pearson, B. Z., Fernandez, M. C., & Oller, D. K., (1992). Measuring bilingual children’s receptive vocabularies. Child Development, 63, 1012-1221.
Pearson, B. Z., Fernandez, M. C., & Oller, D. K., (1993). Lexical development in bilingual infants and toddlers: Comparison to monolingual norms. Language Learning, 43, 93-120.
Peña, E. D., Bedore, L. M., & Zlatic-Giunta, R. (in press). Development of categorization in young bilingual children. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research.
Zimmerman, I. L., Steiner, V. G., & Pond, R. E. (2002). Preschool Language Scale-4: Spanish Edition. San Antonio, TX: Psychological.
Zimmerman, I. L., Steiner, V. G., & Pond, R. E. (in press). Preschool Language Scale-5: Spanish Edition. San Antonio, TX: Pearson.
This Month’s Featured Authors:
Ellen Kester, Ph.D., CCC-SLP Bilinguistics, Inc.
Alejandro Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP University of South Florida St. Petersburg
Many thanks to Dr. Ellen Kester for providing this article for this months newsletter
Dr. Ellen Kester is a Founder and President of Bilinquistics, Inc. She earned her Ph.D. in Communication Sciences and Disorders from The University of Texas at Austin. She earned her Master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology and her Bachelor’s degree in Spanish at The University of Texas at Austin. She has provided bilingual Spanish/English speech-language services in schools, hospitals, and early intervention settings. Her research focus is on the acquisition of semantic language skills in bilingual children, with emphasis on assessment practices for the bilingual population. She has performed workshops and training seminars, and has presented at conferences both nationally and internationally. Dr. Kester teaches courses in language development, assessment and intervention of language disorders, early childhood intervention, and measurement at The University of Texas at Austin. She can be reached at
[email protected]
Dr. Alejandro E. Brice is an Associate Professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg in Secondary/ESOL Education. His research has focused on issues of transference or interference between two languages in the areas of phonetics, phonology, semantics, and pragmatics related to speech-language pathology. In addition, his clinical expertise relates to the appropriate assessment and treatment of Spanish-English speaking students and clients. Please visit his website at or reach him by email at [email protected]

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