Assessing Spoken Language in Deaf Children

The issue


Because more than 90% of children with hearing loss are born to parents who use spoken language, assessment of spoken language skills is essential for characterizing a child’s communicative development. Assessment of a child’s spoken language will help parents and professionals make decisions about a deaf child’s current level of functioning, educational placement, appropriate goals, related instructional strategies and methods, expectations for progress, and effectiveness of interventions. However, the overall language development experiences of children with hearing loss are different from the language development experiences of children with normal hearing. Thus, educators must determine what constitutes appropriate spoken language assessment practices for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

What we know

Spoken language skills can predict academic performance, particularly in a mainstream educational setting. Therefore, assessments of spoken language provide helpful information for making placement and intervention decisions. However, spoken language is not a single construct: language is composed of many skills including vocabulary, grammar, social knowledge and articulation. Appropriate language assessment of children with hearing loss must evaluate knowledge across this variety of skills.

Many types of measures are available to assess the spoken language proficiency of children with hearing loss. Norm-referenced measures are designed to identify delays in children’s skill sets relative to a large comparison group of children of that same age (usually with normal hearing). These measures are not designed to capture change over a short period of time, and items are presented in order of difficulty based on the knowledge of the comparison group of children. Because children with hearing loss may learn some spoken language skills in a different order than children with normal hearing, results of assessments must be interpreted with caution. This may be particularly true for those children who are bilingual language learners (either sign and spoken language or two different spoken languages). An appropriate normative comparison group for a bilingual child is a bilingual comparison group. However, it may be appropriate to compare the performance of a child with hearing loss to a group with normal hearing to evaluate the extent of a spoken language delay.Criterion-referenced measures, alternatively, are designed to measure mastery of a certain set of skills. Criterion-referenced assessments often can be used to monitor progress over a short period of time. Consequently, the results of assessment used with children with hearing loss must be interpreted in light of the assessment purpose.

Professionals must also consider that items on tests may assess different constructs for children with normal hearing than for children with hearing loss. For example, an assessment item that measures spoken vocabulary and sentence understanding for children without hearing loss (e.g., Point to the square before you point to the circle) may be a measure of speech perception and auditory memory for children with hearing loss. In other words, a child with hearing loss may understand the spoken words “square,” “before,” and “circle” but not complete the task correctly as a result of speech perception or auditory memory limitations.

What we don’t know

Despite a wide range of spoken language measures available to educators, research has not yet identified which individual spoken language tests most appropriately assess specific spoken language constructs in children with hearing loss. Future research should consider how individual child characteristics, such as communication mode and listening experience, should affect interpretations of progress on specific spoken language assessments. Further, future investigation must evaluate how assessment results should inform intervention decisions (e.g., should supplementary services be removed for a child who has achieved language skills in the “normal range” on a norm-referenced, spoken-language assessment for children with normal hearing?).


Spoken language assessments must be selected relative to the goals of assessment. For example, if the goal of assessment is to consider a child’s productive use of spoken language, a naturalistic, criterion-referenced assessment (e.g., a language sample) might be appropriate. If the goal of assessment is to consider the extent of a child’s spoken language abilities, a structured, norm- or criterion-referenced assessment may be more appropriate.

Before making important programming or placement decisions based on spoken language assessment, educators must determine how to validly interpret the results of the assessment. Interpretations must take into account the purpose of assessment, the skill assessed, any comparison group used, and any modifications made to test administration.

Posted on April 1, 2015 by
Emily Lund
Davies School of Communication Sciences and Disorders
Texas Christian University
e.lund {at}

Further reading

Prezbindowski, A. K., & Lederberg, A. R. (2003). Vocabulary assessment of deaf and hard-of-hearing children from infancy through the preschool years. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 8, 383 – 400. view details

Goldstein, G., & Bebko, J. M. (2003). The profile of multiple language proficiencies: A measure for evaluating language samples of deaf children. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 8, 452 – 463. view details

Knoors, H., & Marschark, M. (2014). Language assessment and teaching. In H. Knoors & M. Marschark. Teaching Deaf Learners: Psychological and Developmental Foundations (pp. 80 – 106). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. view details