Multi-Language Assessment (MLA) for young children: A screener to understand language assets [CIES 2023 Presentation]

The lack of information about children’s oral language skills limits our understanding of why some children do not respond to literacy instruction. Even though native language oral language skills are not strong predictors of native language decoding (Durgunoglu et al., 1993; Lesaux et al., 2006), oral language skills have been shown to have a small role in non-native word reading for non-native speakers (Geva, 2006; Quiroga et al., 2002). Yet, understanding that threshold of language skills is not understood. Cross-linguistic studies show that some literacy skills transfer between languages (Abu-Rabia & Siegel, 2002; Bialystok, McBride-Chang, & Luk, 2005; Cisero & Royer, 1995; Comeau, Cormier, Grandmaison, & Lacroix, 1999; Denton et al., 2000; Durgunoglu, 2002; Durgunoglu et al., 1993; Genesee & Geva, 2006; Gottardo, Yan, Siegel, & Wade-Woolley, 2001; Koda, 2007; Wang et al., 2006). This includes letter knowledge, print concepts, and language skills (phonological awareness and vocabulary). The transfer of these skills is considered a resource (Genesee, Geva, Dressler, & Kamil, 2006) that assists reading in the additional languages. Children learning to read in a non-native language bring their first language (i.e., mother tongue) to the instructional setting. Yet, its use will depend on the teacher’s use translanguaging between the language of instruction and children’s home language (s). The presence of two or more languages contributes to children having domains of knowledge in specific languages. For example, domains of knowledge children learn at school such as shapes, might only be known in the language of instruction. Relatedly, domains of knowledge they learn at home from family interactions, such as cooking, might only be known in the mother-tongue. And domains of knowledge that children learn on the playground, are likely to be learned in a lingua franca, or a common language to the area. Even though mixing languages is common, most language assessments do not capture this knowledge. Even in samples with multi-lingual students, for reasons of reliability and consistency, most language assessments assess children in just one language and describe results for that language. The results are used to help to explain results on reading assessments. But measuring language skills in just one language overlooks the concepts that a multilingual child may have in other languages and describe them from a deficit approach opposed to the asset of being multi-lingual. To address this problem, we developed a tool, the Multi-Language Assessment (MLA), to measure children’s expressive language across multiple languages to understand the skills they have to support their learning. The tool is intended to be reliable, valid, and child friendly. It is our hypothesis that children’s expressive language scores across multiple languages can help to explain their success or struggles in the early years of formal schooling. We conceptualized and developed the Multi-Language Assessment (MLA) to capture children’s language skills across multiple languages in a 7-minute interaction with a trained assessor. The MLA measures expressive language of 36 concepts shown in 36 images that children would be exposed to through family and community interactions, conversations, media, books, or school. The items included in the assessment yield variable distribution; they are not intended to be items that would yield ceiling effects. A child’s utterance is coded to one of nine categories of varying weights. Furthermore, the items are intended to have levels of a familiarity. For example, for an image of a coconut tree, some children might call it that, while other children describe it by its domain, a tree, not identifying the specific type. Both utterances would earn a child points but of varying weight. Research Problem 1. Many children in low- and middle-income contexts do not learn to read in lower primary efficiently. 2. Some people hypothesize that the reason for children’s poor performance is language related. 3. When children’s language skills are assessed it is usually in one language and describes their abilities as deficits as opposed to considering their assets of being multi-lingual. 4. Assessing language requires time and young children’s attention spans are short, reducing data quality if the assessment is too long. 5. The MLA was created to understand expressive language use across multiple languages and to be brief Study: The paper presents results from a recent longitudinal study that collected child level results at two time points in government school in rural Kenya. It includes the aforementioned multi-language assessment and measures of reading achievement (e.g., letter knowledge and spelling) at Time 1 when all children were in kindergarten and again at Time 2 when they had advanced to either a higher Kindergarten or to Grade 1. An existing measure of expressive language was used to explore concurrent validity of the MLA. The Time 1 sample (n=215) was large enough to examine the technical properties of the tool and the Time 2 sample (n=200) had only 7% attrition so there was sufficient power to describe individual changes. The features of the language assessment suggest that it is reliable and sensitive. The following analysis been conducted: 1) Sample demographics; 2) Distributions by subtasks; 3) Measures of association between subtasks; 4) Item analysis The following research questions are addressed: 1. How does expressive language use evolve for children who use three languages as they progress from kindergarten into first grade? For example, do they shift from using the home language for some items at Time 1 to a language of instruction at Time 2? 2. How does children’s overall expressive language knowledge (as measured in three languages) contribute to their reading achievement (letter sound knowledge and spelling) as measured in two languages over time?