Lisa Bedore

Elizabeth Pena and Lisa Bedore, communication sciences and disorders professors, developed the Bilingual English-Spanish Assessment project that helps speech pathologists working with bilingual students. The assessment helps to differentiate limited English exposure from a child’s underlying language impairments.

Photo Credit: Betsy Joles | Daily Texan Staff

Two UT professors saw 15 years of research pay off when their bilingual speech pathology test was published in December.  

Along with researchers from universities across the country, communication sciences and disorders professors Elizabeth Pena and Lisa Bedore began research for the Bilingual English-Spanish Assessment project in 1998. According to Pena, the idea came from various National Institutes of Health focus group meetings. 

“[At the time] there were very few [assessments] for bilingual kids in the U.S. and very few [assessments] that were appropriate for African-American kids,” Pena said. 

The BESA helps speech pathologists work with bilingual children by measuring language development to differentiate limited English exposure from underlying language impairments.

“I think it should help speech language pathologists who are working in schools who work with preschool and young school-age kids,” Pena said. “I think it will eventually help the kids, too.”

According to Casey Taliancich, a communication sciences and disorders graduate student who worked with Pena and Bedore on the test, pathologists who have been able to use the assessment obtain a deeper understanding of the children’s linguistic abilities. 

“I feel like we get a more comprehensive picture of what the children can do in both languages.” said Taliancich, who also works as a bilingual speech-language pathologist in Dallas. 

Pena said she believes many bilingual children are being misdiagnosed with learning disabilities.

“Younger kids tend to be underidentified as having language impairments,” Pena said. “That delays services when they might really need them. Older kids sometimes get overidentified for language impairment when, really, they’re still in the process of learning English.”  

According to Nancy Martin, owner of AR-Clinical Publications, the company that published the BESA, misdiagnoses affect the children’s education. 

“[Children] don’t get the right diagnosis and are tracked into different educational routes,” Martin said.

More research over bilingual language acquisition needs to be done, Bedore said.

“A lot of what we know in the U.S. — actually worldwide — about language acquisition is based on English, and English isn’t representative of the whole range of variation in languages,” Bedore said. “Studying other languages is important in terms of understanding the whole range or challenges.” 

Although the assessment is intended only for bilingual children who speak English and Spanish, Pena said the test could be developed for other languages through further research.

“We study Spanish-English bilinguals because I think [they’re] popular languages [in] Texas, but we have somebody in our faculty who is interested in Mandarin-English, and we’ve extended a lot of our work to other language pairs too,” Pena said.

A program to improve language impairments of bilingual first grade students, initiated by UT speech-language researchers, received a $2.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

During the first year, researchers will work with 24 Georgetown students to test the effectiveness of the language intervention program, which they believe will lead to increased English literacy. Program instructors will teach bilingual children devices to help them learn the basic phonics of English.

Children who have language impairments have trouble properly structuring well-organized sentences and appropriately using words, said Lisa Bedore, an associate professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders and lead researcher of the program. They also have a higher risk for difficulties in learning to read.

Bedore said the study seeks to determine whether combining two historically separated facets of English will yield better results.

“The goals of the study are to determine if greater gains in language skills can be obtained by targeting language and reading skills together,” she said. “We are also interested in exploring the extent to which children are able to transfer what they learned in one language to the other.”

Elizabeth Peña, a communication sciences and disorders professor, said the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act guarantees special academic services for all students with learning disabilities, but bilingual literacy is rarely addressed.

“IDEA provides language identification services for all children but there is a shortage of bilingual pathology, so it is also difficult to find professionals qualified in that area,” she said.

Peña said their program is more of a systematic approach to address the language impairments of bilingual students.

“We want this program to be more efficient and more effective,” she said. “It’s developed using the latest research and we are taking a theoretical approach to make improvements.”

Jennifer Hannah, a student teacher and applied learning and development senior, said there is an apparent need for improvement of bilingual students in her third grade class at Andrews Elementary.

“A little boy just transferred to my bilingual class and he is on a first-grade reading level,” she said. “I try to work on fluency when I work with him because he is learning slowly and he doesn’t understand a lot of what he reads.”

Hannah said the program sounds like something her class and classes similar to it can take advantage of.

“Any type of intervention is necessary for bilingual students because language is a barrier that really affects the classroom,” she said.