Monthly Archive

Bilingual Corner: What Language Proficiency and Language Dominance Mean to the SLP

Responses from the Texas Speech-Language Hearing Association’s Task Force on Cultural and Linguistic Diversity
By: Ellen Kester, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, Alejandro Brice, PhD, CCC-SLP and the CLD Task Force of the Texas Speech-Language Hearing Association.
I have a few questions regarding language proficiency and language dominance in bilingual speech-language evaluations.

  • According to best practices, what information is collected to address language dominance and language proficiency prior to formal and informal speech-language assessment? Is it appropriate to determine if a student is English dominant, Spanish dominant, or mixed proficiency prior to the formal and informal assessment for the code of Speech Impaired?

Prior to the assessment, as much information as possible should be gathered about the child’s language experiences. That information would include finding out the language(s) spoken in the home and by whom, at what age the child was introduced to the 2nd language, whether or not they watch television in English or another language and how often, and language programming of the school (ESL, dual language, bilingual, etc.). If Oral language proficiency tests (OLPTs) have been administered for classroom placement decisions, those scores should be reviewed but it is not necessary to administer proficiency tests to determine language(s) of testing. Consider how many students you have seen with a language proficiency profile of Non English speaker (NES), Non Spanish speaker (NSS). It would not be reasonable to opt to test neither of the languages as a result of that testing. Thus Fluent Spanish speaking (FSS), Non English speaking (NES) should not indicate that testing in English is not necessary. If the child has exposure to more than one language, testing should be attempted in both languages. It is not always possible to administer formal tests but informal measures should be attempted in all languages the child speaks.
The notion of language dominance is misconceived. Students are not necessarily dominant in one language across the board. It is entirely possible that a student has higher proficiency in English for some topics of discussion and higher proficiency in Spanish for other topics of discussion. This is common for circumstantial bilinguals who use one language in one setting and another language in another setting. As an example, if a student receives mathematics instruction in English and language arts instruction in Spanish, they will likely have a higher proficiency in English when talking about mathematics and a higher proficiency in Spanish when talking about language arts. Thus, we cannot simply establish language dominance and test only in the dominant language. The purpose of the assessment is to determine the child’s abilities and weaknesses in both languages. So, the purpose of gathering the information about the child’s language history is so the assessor will know which languages to assess. That informal information becomes part of the overall assessment along with formal and informal language measures.
While IDEA mandates that children be tested in their dominant language, best practice is to test in both languages to get an accurate view of their complete language skills set. This provides an opportunity to obtain the child’s total language competence and to determine their strengths and weaknesses in each language to assist in determination of what will yield the best outcome for certain language tasks. According to Langdon (1992), “Testing communicative competence in both languages permits the clinician to determine whether the student’s skills in one or the other language are superior for certain language uses. Neglecting one language, even the one in which the student has weaker skills, would give an inaccurate appraisal of students general language competence.”

    1. According to best practices, what conclusions regarding language dominance and language proficiency are included in the bilingual speech-language evaluation report? Specifically, are the languages compared generally, for example, one language is stronger than the other language? Are the terms, mixed proficiency, Spanish dominant, or English dominant, included in the conclusions of the report?

The report should name the languages assessed as a matter of convention. In the discussion of results, the communication system should be referred to in terms of current levels of proficiency for the purpose of letting the team know what language the student will likely use under different circumstances. In the recommendation section, the goals and objectives should reflect the linguistic items particular to each language that require intervention to move the system to a functional conversational and academic level. In the discussion, in the admission, review, dismissal (ARD) or response to intervention (RTI) proceedings, the report should include rates of proficiency to support the expected level benefit from the appropriate placement in classroom and provision of special services.
See Langdon (1992) pp. 233-236 for more information.

    1. Are the English and Spanish CELF scores or the English and Spanish PLS4 scores used to determine language dominance and language proficiency? If so, are there guidelines regarding the spread between the scores? In other words, if the Total Language Scores in English and Spanish are different by, say, fifteen points or more, is one language dominant?

Neither the PLS-4 nor the CELF-4 were designed to establish language dominance or language proficiency. They were designed to provide evidence about the presence of a speech or language disorder. The scores can be used along with informal measures to support or negate the presence of a disorder if the student is represented in the normative group. An item analysis will provide information about relative strengths and weaknesses in each language. SLPs do not have the establishment of proficiency levels in the scope of our practice. Language proficiency is measured by the bilingual education teachers. Bilingual educators are trained in determining proficiency levels for languages in a student’s repertoire. The notion of a fifteen point spread is not the method used and is reminiscent of a procedure formerly used by psychologists to assist in determining differences between verbal and non-verbal performance. The practice has been abandoned because it has been found to be a flawed practice. Examine each language for targets of treatment and use a combination of items from each language to estimate the overall development of the communication system.


Langdon, H. W. (1992) Speech and Language Assessment of LEP/Bilingual Hispanic Students. In H.W. Langdon & L. Cheng (Eds.), Hispanic children and adults with communication disorders. (p.224). Gaitherburg, MD: Aspen.
This Month’s Featured Authors:  Ellen Kester, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, Alejandro Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, and the CLD Task Force of the Texas Speech-Language Hearing Association
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]
We thank our Authors for providing this Q&A for our Newsletter.

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