Narrative Assessments with Spanish-Speaking Children

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Anny P. Castilla, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in CSD, State University of New York – Fredonia, Fredonia, NY

Dr. Anny Castilla completed her clinical degree as a speech-language pathologist in La Universidad del Valle, in Cali, Colombia. In 2008, she obtained her doctorate degree at The University of Toronto. Currently, Dr. Castilla is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Disorders and Sciences at SUNY Fredonia in New York.

It is my pleasure to share my experience and knowledge on the use of narratives as a language assessment tool in Spanish-speaking (SS) children. I have worked with narratives since I began my doctoral work in 2003. In my own research, I have used narratives to examine typical and atypical language in preschool SS. In other work with my colleagues, I have also used narratives to examine the influence of Spanish-language skills on the acquisition of English and the effect of a Spanish supplemental program on Spanish language development.

Why SLPs should incorporate narrative assessment into their evaluations?

The use of narratives as a tool to assess productive language skills in children is highly encouraged because of their high ecological validity – children are often exposed to and asked to produce narratives – and their association with academic skills (Hughes, McGillivray & Schmidek, 1997). Narrative production is a task with high language demands allowing the assessment of productive language skills such as vocabulary, morphosyntax, language complexity and story grammar (Klecan-Aker & Hedrick, 1985; Paul & Smith, 1993; Scott, 1988). In addition, narrative tasks are culturally appropriate activities to assess language skills in SS preschool children (Castilla, 2008; Restrepo & Castilla, 2007). My own research indicates that measures of productive language derived from narratives are sensitive to developmental changes in SS children during the preschool years.

How to elicit a narrative and what language measures can be calculated from it?

My preferred method for narrative elicitation is story retelling. Children tend to be more productive if they do not have to create their own story.  I read the story while I am changing the pages of a book, and, once I am finished, I ask the child to repeat the story back to me. If the child is slow to repeat the story, I ask him/her to identify the main characters on the first page and then ask again to tell me the story. I say “y entonce que pasó?’ or “Y qué mas?” to encourage language production. I find that this methodology works very well with preschool children.

I record the child retelling me the story and later I transcribe and code. As previously mentioned, narratives can provide one with information on language complexity, vocabulary, grammatical development and story grammar. The following measures can be calculated from a narrative:

a)     Number of T-units and Mean Length of T-units. A Terminable Unit (T-Unit) is a main clause plus its subordinated clauses (Hunt, 1965). Subjectless sentences where the verb is conjugated are considered T-units. (Gutierrez-Clellen and Hofstetter, 1994). Count the number of T-units produced and the average length in words.

b)    Subordination Index. Subordination Index is the number of dependent and independent clauses divided by the total number of T-units. A SUB-I score of one indicates that children used only simple sentences in their story retellings. A higher subordination index score indicates that the child can produce complex sentences.

c)     Number of Grammatical Errors per T-unit. Calculate the sum of all grammatical errors divided by the total number of T-units. This will give you a grammaticality index (Restrepo, 1998).

d)     Number of different words produced in the sample.

e)     Story grammar. I use the Index of Narrative Complexity (Petersen, Gillam & Gillam, 2008) to code for story grammar. This tool works very well with narratives produced by SS children (Castilla & Hammer, 2010; Castilla, Hammer, Petersen & Spencer, in preparation).

My research suggests that all these previous measures, with the exception of number of grammatical errors per T-unit, increase with age during the preschool years in SS children.

How effective are narrative assessments as diagnostic tools for Spanish-speaking children?

One recommendation regarding language assessment for SS children is to use language measures obtained through the analysis of spontaneous language samples (Gutiérrez-Clellen, Restrepo, Bedore, Peña & Anderson, 2000; Restrepo & Gutierrez-Clellen, 2004). In fact, researchers have made significant advances in the identification of SS children with language disorders using spontaneous language samples (Bedore & Leonard, 2005; Restrepo, 1998; Gutierrez-Clellen and Simon-Cereijido, 2007). For example, researchers have determined that measures of sentence length (Bedore & Leonard, 2005; Simon-Cereijido & Gutierrez-Clellen, 2007; Restrepo, 1998) and indices of grammaticality (Simon-Cereijido & Gutierrez-Clellen, 2007; Restrepo, 1998) can discriminate SS children with language disorders from typically developing children. Narratives are considered samples of spontaneous language.

Preliminary data from a current research project carried out in my laboratory indicates that measures of language productivity, vocabulary and story grammar derived from a story-retelling task differentiate typically developing children from children with language disorders.  Currently, I am collecting data in both monolingual and bilingual populations to further advance our knowledge in this area.

References and Recommended Readings

Bedore, L., & Leonard, L. (2001). Grammatical morphology deficits in Spanish-speaking children with specific language impairment. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 44, 905-924.

Bedore, L., & Leonard, L. (2005). Verb inflections and noun phrase morphology in the spontaneous speech of Spanish-speaking children with specific language impairment. Applied Linguistics, 26, 195-225.

Castilla, A. P. & Hammer, K. (2010) Assessment of Narrative Development in Preschool Monolingual Spanish-Speaking Children. Presentation at the Symposium on Research in Child Language Disorders, Madison, WI.

Castilla, A. P. (2009). Morphosyntactic Acquisition in monolingual 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old Spanish-speaking children. In V. Marrero & I. Pinera (Eds.) Linguistics: The Challenge of Clinical Application. Proceedings of the II International Conference on Clinical Linguistics. Euphonia Ediciones: Madrid, Spain.

Castilla, A.P., Restrepo, M.A. & Pérez-Leroux, A.T. (2009). Individual differences and language interdependence in Spanish-English bilingual children. International Journal of Bilingualism.

Gazella, J., & Stockman, I. J. (2003). Children’s story retelling under different modality and task conditions: Implications for standardizing language sampling procedures. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 12, 61-72.

Gutierrez-Clellen, V. F., & Hofstetter, R. (1994). Syntactic complexity in Spanish narratives: A developmental study. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 37, 645-654.

Gutierrez-Clellen, V. F., Restrepo, M. A., Bedore, L., Peña, L., & Anderson, R. (2000). Language sample analysis: Methodological considerations. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in the Schools, 31, 88-98.

Hunt, K. (1965). Grammatical structures written at three grade levels. Champaign, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Hughes, D., McGillivray, L. & Schmidek, M. (1997). Guide to narrative language: Procedures for assessment. Austin, TX: PRO-ED Inc.

Klecan-Aker, J.S. & Hedrick, D.L. (1985). A study of the syntactic language skills of normal school-age children.  Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 16, 187-198.

Loban, W. (1976). Language development: Kindergarden through grade twelve. Research Report No. 18. Champaign, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Miller, J. F., & Chapman, R. S. (1996). SALT: A Computer program for the systematic analysis of language transcripts. Madison, WI: Language Analysis Lab, Waisman Center.

Peterson, D.B., Laing Gillam, S., Gillam, R.B. (2008) Emerging procedures in narrative assessment: The index of narrative complexity. Topics in Language Disorders, 28 (2), 115-130.

Restrepo, M. A. (1998). Identifiers of predominantly Spanish-speaking children with language impairment. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 41, 1398-1411.

Restrepo, M.A., Castilla, A.P. Schwanenflugel, P., Pritchett, S., Hamilton, C. & Arboleda, A. (2010) Sentence length, complexity and growth in Spanish-speaking children attending English-only and bilingual preschool programs. Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools.

Restrepo, M.A., & Castilla, A. (2007). Language sample elicitation and analysis as a research and clinical tool for Latino children. In. J.G. Centeno, K.L. Obler, & R. Anderson (Eds.), Communication disorders in Spanish speakers: Theoretical, research and clinical aspects. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Restrepo, M. A., & Gutierrez-Clellen, V. F. (2004). Grammatical impairments in Spanish/English-speaking children. In B. Goldstein (Ed.), Bilingual language development and disorders in Spanish-English speakers (pp.213-134). Baltimore, Maryland: Paul H. Brookes.

Restrepo, M.A., Castilla, A.P., Schwanenflugel, P., Neuharth-Pritchett, S.,  Hamilton, C. & Arboleda, A. (in press). Effects of a supplemental Spanish oral language program on sentence length, complexity, and grammaticality in Spanish-speaking children attending English-only Preschools. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in the Schools.

Simon-Cereijido, G., & Gutierrez-Clellen, V. (2007) Spontaneous language markers of Spanish language impairment. Applied Psycholinguistics, 28, 317-339.

Posted in: Assessment Resources

5 responses to “Narrative Assessments with Spanish-Speaking Children”

  1. Nathan Cornish says:

    Thank you for this great article! It seems like a lot of the information that clinicians might need to analyze a narrative sample is available through a program like SALT, or embedded in research articles. Do you know of anywhere that an SLP can find some more “easy access” info for interpreting the data they obtain through a Spanish narrative sample? (E.g., Expected MLTU, SUB-I score, or Grammaticality Index score for different ages/stages of development.) Thanks!

  2. Henriette W. Langdon says:

    Thank you for your article on how to best collect and obtain a representative sample on a preschool child who is Spanish-speaking. Which books have you found to be most attractive to elicit the samples.?What if a child has had limited exposure to literacy activities? I am concerned that many of the young Spanish-speaking students I have been in contact with have had limited access to books except if they attend a program. I may sound biased but this has been my experience.

  3. Anny Castilla says:

    Nate: For developmental data on Narratives, I would suggest the article by Gutierrez-Clellen & Hofstetter (1994) and my dissertation (Castilla, 2008). I have an article currently under review that summarizes my findings. I will post here the reference here once it is formally accepted for publication. I am aware that there is a huge gap on the literature on these developmental measures, and I am definitely working to bring answers and data that clinicians can use in their daily practice.

    Dr. Langdon: I often use the frog stories with scripts and have no difficulties engaging children in the activity. In my work with Laida Restrepo, we used ‘Carlos y La Planta de Calabaza’ and had no difficulties either. I have not worked directly with children with limited exposure to literacy activities because I usually recruit children from Day Cares/Schools. It is possible that children who have never had exposure to literacy activities will perform differently on a story-retelling task than children who are used to hear stories…but, we will have then other issues involved, such as SES or mother’s level of education. As I said before, in my experience, Spanish-speaking children often engage and enjoy narrative tasks. Thank you for a very interesting question!

  4. Ana Maria Ulloa says:


    Soy Colombiana. Muy interesante tu artículo. No soy fonoaudióloga, soy antropóloga, pero estoy buscando un terapista de lenguaje en Bogotá que sea bilingue para mi hermana. Ella tiene afasia de conducción luego de un ACV. Mi hermana estaba haciendo un doctorado en Stony Brook en Ecología y Evolución y tenía muy buen nivel de inglés. El accidente ocurrió hace dos años, y sigue con limitaciones en la producción del lenguaje hablado y escrito. Pero ha avanzado bastante en sus terapias que han sido realizadas hasta el momento sólo en Español. Ella quiere retomar el Inglés porque piensa volver a vivir en Estados Unidos pero no logro encontrar una persona que tenga conocimientos en patologias del lenguaje y bilinguismo que viva en Bogotá. Por esto te escribo en este blog, viendo que eres graduada de la Universidad del Valle, y de pronto conozcas a alguien que me pueda orientar.

    Muchas gracias y me disculpo por usar este medio de discusión académica y profesional para este fin.

    Ana Maria.

  5. Max | physical therapist education says:

    Thanks for the great info. I was so amazed reading this article, I learned a lot on how to treat my child.