"Harriet vs the CELF-4" is a true story. It also is a cautionary tale for parents, educators and anyone interested in protecting Nonstandard English-Speaking children from unfair testing, labeling and inappropriate special education placements. Names and dates have been changed to protect the innocent and the not so innocent.

     Please Note: Click on one of the following links in order to go directly to that particular chapter.   

Introduction:              Meet Harriet and her Family

Chapter 1.                  Harriet "Discovers" the CELF-4

Chapter 2.                  Paranoia or Reality?

Chapter 3.                  Where should Change Start?

Chapter 4.                  The Next Move

Chapter 5.                  Buyer's Remorse

Chapter 6.                 The Search for a Private SLP

Chapter 7.                 Donald: The Whole Child

Chapter 8.                 Harriet's Dialectal Memories / Nightmares

Chapter 9.                 Still Searching for an SLP

Chapter 10.               The DELV: Developmental Evaluation of Language Variance Test

Chapter 11.               My Meeting with the School Professionals

Chapter 12.               After the Meeting

Chapter 13.               Analysis of Donald's CELF-4 Screening Answers and Scores

Introduction: Meet Harriet and her family

Posted April 3, 2010
In February of 2009, I received an email from Harriet T., a woman who expressed guilt and fear regarding her young son's school situation. I knew that I could ease her feelings of guilt, but I also knew that her fear was justified. Like hundreds of thousands of African American, Native American and English-speaking Latino boys before him, Donald had been inappropriately referred for "language disorder" screening, with the strong possibility of a placement into a special education program. I used the term, "inappropriate," because the referral, the testing, the labeling and the potential for special ed placement all appeared to be based on Donald's nonstandard English-speaking style - in this instance, African American English (AAE), more commonly referred to as Black English (BE) or African American English Vernacular (AAEV).

Also known as Black English, this speaking style is a dialectally Different, but not Deficient style of speaking - a rule-driven and derived American English dialect, whose usage has no negative relationship whatsoever to a child's intelligence, talent or potential.

Consider the following scenario:  A nonstandard English-speaking student has never been systematically taught to acquire and use oral and written standard English in school; the student's teacher is concerned about his language skills and requests a language disorder screening test;  subsequently, an educational professional "measures" his language intelligence with a test that has been written in standard English, and is scored according to the degree to which the student can successfully read, write, speak, think and answer the test's questions in standard English.  

But, English-speaking students will read, write and test the way they speak English, so - as you might have already concluded - there is absolutely no chance that a nonstandard English-speaking student's score, on a standard English test, would reflect his/her real intelligence or academic and professional potential.  Oh yes, Harriet had every right to be fearful for her son! 

By sharing their educational experience in this blog, Harriet's family and I have three goals:
First, we want this story to serve as just one example of the hundreds of thousands of minority and nonstandard English-speaking children - often, but not always poor - whose academic, professional and personal futures have been and continue to be severely damaged because of inappropriate and disproportionate referrals, testing, labeling and tracking policies.

Second, as the blog's story evolves, it will point out the unprofessional and unethical absence of linguistic and methodological training that the majority of our teachers, speech-language pathologists (SLPs) and other school-based professionals demonstrate, with respect to their nonstandard English-speaking students. 

This story also will illustrate most educational professionals' continued insistence on using culturally and dialectally-biased standardized tests, instead of dialectally neutral tests and/or other indirect methods that are acceptable and preferable alternatives.

Third, we intend this blog to influence change in the list of required courses that undergraduate and graduate students take in order to earn their professional degrees and certification in teaching, administration, curriculum and speech-language pathology.  By adding just one course that includes linguistics, a systematic methodology and dialectally neutral testing - all of which would specifically focus on nonstandard English-speaking students and their respective dialects - I feel confident that our training institutions would better prepare our educators-in-training to practice professionally, ethically and equitably with all of our children.

 As the narrative of this story develops - via email exchanges, personal and professional phone conversations and faxes - I'll describe tests, cite research and offer you reports and web links which will clarify and prove the assertions we make.  In addition, your comments, complaints, concerns and personal experiences that relate to our story are very important to us. So, please email me at

The blog will cover a flash-back period of over a year, and will eventually continue into the present until the family and I feel that our goals have at least been acknowledged as legitimate, and that honest efforts to fulfill our goals are in the works.

The first email that I received from Harriet follows below.

                                                                          *  *  * 

Date:     February, 2009
To:         Mary Berger
From:    Harriet T.
Subj:     I'm an African American female from ___________.

Hi Ms. Berger, I am an African American female from __________. Believe it or not, I have a master (sic) degree, but standard English is a struggle for me to write and speak. I shy away from public speaking request (sic) because of my nonstandard English. I try really hard to pronounce my words correctly and to use standard English. I have spent alot of money on books to help me acquire the skills of standard English, but the books I have purchased do not address my need.

My 8 year old was screened at school by a speech pathologist and he failed the CELF-4. I feel that I am the cause of his language disorder. Do you have any recommendations for me! Which books would help with my condition and help me assist my son. I live in _________. Do you know of a speech pathologist that would screen an adult for a language disorder.
Thank you,

                                                                        *  *  *

Date:     February, 2009
To:         Harriet T.
From:   Mary Berger
Subj:    Re: i'm an African American female from ______

Dear Harriet:
Thank you so much for writing - you sound courageous and intelligent and I hope that we can continue to speak with each other.

Re your concerns about yourself and your son:
1/ I have not yet heard you speak, but from your writing my 40+ years of experience tell me that there is very little chance that you have a "language disorder." I'll need toknow more about your son and speak with him for a bit in order to conclude the same about him, but - for the time being - my guess is that the same is true of him.

It appears to me that you have a "dialectal difference," which does not represent any sort of deficiency, diseased "condition" or language disorder ... and which simply occurs because you were perobably brought up speaking with a set of grammar and pronunciation rules that differ from the standard English dialect's rules. Then, because you were the first speech model for your son - and being the smart young man that I'm betting he is - he fluently copied your speaking style - just as I copied my parents' speaking style ...

                                                                        *  *  *

Background Info:
The rest of my response will be included in the next post. Until then, here's some historical basis for why Harriet feels so guilty and fearful, beyond the universal concern we all feel about our children.

For the past several decades, hundreds of credible and scholarly studies have been consistent in their conclusions: each year, thousands of intelligent and talented nonstandard English-speaking students - particularly African American, Native American and English-speaking Latino boys - have been inappropriately and disproportionately referred, tested, misdiagnosed, mislabeled and over-identified as "language-disordered," then misplaced into special education programs of one sort or another.  This disgraceful situation exists because most university departments of education and speech-language pathology may offer introductory courses in linguistics and may offer methodological "ideas" for teaching oral and written standard English to nonstandard English-speakers, but very few - if any - departments require those courses. 

Therefore, the great majority of our past and practicing educators have not been adequately trained:
- To recognize the across-the-curriculum influence that nonstandard English usage has on a child's classroom performances in language arts - particularly when given a standardized test which has not been designed as dialectally neutral (omitting test items that require standard grammatical rules which contrast with nonstandard dialectal rules); in addition to language arts, this "across-the-board" influence includes social and cultural differences, such as acceptable/unacceptable social distance, eye contact or lack thereof, facial/hand/arm/body gestures, soft or loud bocal volume, hyper-inflection or flat vocalizations, vocabulary differences in meaning - all of which could be misinterpreted by a culturally-unenlightened teacher/SLP as behavioral problems and/or social disorders.

- To teach nonstandard English-speaking students to acquire and use standard English in classroom work and on standardized tests  within a nonjudgmental, systematic, rule-by-rule curriculum - with no random correction.

Thanks so much for visiting - and please remember to email
Mary Berger

Chapter 1.  Harriet "Discovers" the CELF-4

Posted April 23, 2010
Hello, again, and thanks for returning. 

Please note that with her permission, I've included the grammatical dialectal differences that Harriet's writing reflects in her email notes. The dialectal differences are followed by "(sic)", to designate that I feel that they weren't just typos.  Of course, the fact that Harriet does use some nonstandard rules in her speech and writing - and the possibility that her husband also speaks a variety of AAE  has important relevance to her son's speaking and writing styles.

Following is the rest of my first emailed response to Harriet (the beginning is in the preceding post):

                                                                       *  *  *

... So, you and Donald both grew up speaking your style of nonstandard English rules, and, because standardized tests - and their administrators - expect oral and written standard English responses to the standardized tests' questions, Donald would predictably lose points on many of the expected standard grammatical and pronunciation answers. That does not, in any way, make him - or you - language-disordered! In other words - your speaking style and your son's speaking style are different, NOT deficient

I speak from vast experience - degrees in speech-language pathology and over 40 years of linguistic research, teaching and teacher-training, and what I'm telling you is not a patronizing pat on the head to make you feel better - it's the linguistic and historical truth. This is not a good time to go into details, but suffice it to say that at this point, your speaking style is influenced by West African grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary - and this is really similar to an English-speaker with a Spanish-speaking or a Polish-speaking background having a "foreign accent."  So - please! - stop thinking of yourself as disordered or second-rate intellectually - and the same goes for your son!

2. Regarding your question about which books would help you ... I taught for 18 years in the Radio Dept. of Columbia College ... the classes were attended and the materials were used by students who ranged in age from 18 to 72!  I'm confident that this set of materials would be helpful to you - just as they've been helpful to thousands of young and older adults around this country who have the same dialectal issues as you. If you do decide to purchase these materials, you can first practice on the following lessons that relate to differences that I've noticed in your writing:
- s-endings (plurals, possessives, 3rd person singular pronoun + verb, and contractions);
- consonant cluster endings, like (st) as in "first"; (sts) as in "requests"; (sp) as in "grasp"; (sps) as in "grasps," etc.

3. Regarding a set of materials that would help your son ... first of all, just by you working on standard English, and acquiring new standard English rules, you will help your son by modeling these new rules. But also, there are materials for oral grammar and writing that would be fun and helpful to you and him ... after I give you a little guidance on how to use the materials - while you're helping him to learn the new rules, you'll also be learning. I'm pretty sure both of you will enjoy it - as long as you keep it fun. Try to practice every day and try not to treat it as a "chore"! :)

I promised you that this note would be brief - but it's not! But it angers and saddens me that you have had to deal with this without the proper information and help during your lifetime - as well as feeling guilty about your son. You can acquire standard English - and so can he. So - in a couple of weeks, when I'm back at the office - call or email me and tell me how you're doing.

I wish you the very best - stay well, stay strong and stay confident.
Mary Berger

                                                                        *  *  *

In Harriet's next note, she gives me a little more information as she refers again to a well-known and often-used language disorder screening test, the CELF-4.

                                                                        *  *  *

Date:     February, 2009
To:         Mary B.

From:    Harriet T.
Subj:     Re: African American female ...

Ms. Berger:
Thank you so much for responding to my email ... My son scored 12 on the CELF-4 screening test. The speech therapist at Donald (sic) school said the average score for children his age is 18. Donald has one of the highest reading score (sic) in his class. All of the vocabulary test (sic) he has taken this year is (sic) 80 and above. The speech therapist would like to have a meeting to discuss giving him a language and IQ test. I am really nervous because I do not want him labeled at such an early age. But on the other hand, I don't want the school to think I don't want to work with them. You can reach me at: (ph no.) 

Once again, thank you from my heart. I know you are very busy, and I would like to pay you for your time ...

And ...

Date:     February, 2009
From:   Harriet T.
To:       Mary B.
Subj:   Re: African American female ...

Thank you (for more info about lessons). I am looking forward to my new adventure!

And ...

Date:     February, 2009
To:         Mary B.
From:    Harriet T.
Subj:     Re: African American female from ...

Hi Mrs. Berger,
I received my book order today. I am so excited! Where should I start?
Thank you,

                                                                        *  *  *

As you can see, Harriet's emails express her passion and ambivalence - we didn't know each other very well at this point, but I thought I knew enough to be sure of two things: first, as a mother, she would fight tooth and nail for her son and what she believed to be Donald's innate and already-proven intelligence (i.e., top reading groups; excellent vocabulary and spelling scores); second, although she had not specifically expressed it, I was pretty sure that Harriet had experienced overt and subtle language bias during the course of her academic studies. I also felt that at some point she would tell/write me about some of those experiences.

I think we all can identify with Harriet's ambivalence about how assertive she should be - enough to make her point, but too aggressive for fear she'll alienate faculty and administration against her son ... the old "between a rock and a hard place" dilemma. 

During a phone conversation, prior to the following email, Harriet told me that shortly before a scheduled parent/teacher conference - which was supposed to focus on Donald's report card - the school decided to use that time for a multi-professional gathering of every faculty member who had had contact with Donald. My guess was that they were doing this to discuss Donald's "failure" on the CELF-4 screening - and - push for a signed release from Harriet and her husband to proceed with further testing in order to get a final and firm diagnosis of Donald's "language disorder."  I had the distinct feeling that the professionals were "ganging up" on Donald's parents - consciously or unwittingly. In view of this possibility - and the intimidation factor - I asked Harriet if she wanted me to intervene in some way.  She expressed audible relief, so I asked her to call the SLP who had tested Donald in the hope that he would call me before this meeting took place.

                                                                        *  *  * 

Date:     February, 2009
To:         Mary B.
From:    Harriet T.

Subj:     CELF-4

Hi Mary,
The speech therapist was not available when I called. I was able to talk with the school counselor about my concerns with the possible language disorder diagnosis. This morning, Luther and I will attend a parent/teacher meeting to discuss Donald's report card. The school counselor told me that the school psychologist and the speech therapist would like to meet with me and my husband at the conference to discuss Donald's language disorder screening results. I will let them know today.

I will not allow Donald to be tested for a language disorder. I am really upset because the school never contacted me with their concerns at any time before they called me to say that Donald has a possible language discorder and needs to be screened now.

I have attached a file that gives further information on the CELF-4. I was told Alvin score (sic) low in concepts and direction. I know you are busy. Let me know your thoughts on this test and the schools (sic) move to attend the parent/teacher conference.
Thank you,

                                                                         *  *  *

Harriet is worried, but it certainly hasn't paralyzed her.  She is actively involved in researching the reasons for her child's potential diagnosis and placement - both of which she feels are inappropriate. Her search on the web rewarded her (and me) with a document that gives an excellent description and study of the CELF-4, as it relates, specifically, to AAE-speaking students. It also has a very credible institutional source - The Teachers College at Columbia University in New York. 

So, I think this is a good time to give you an overview of the CELF-4 - a standardized screening and diagnostic language test - which was about to cause a major roadblock in Donald's academic and professional future, just as it is reputed to have caused in thousands of other children's lives.

Clinical Evaluation of Language Functions - 4th Edition (CELF-4)
The screening version of this test, which was administered to Donald, is the shorter version of a longer, "deeper," diagnostic exam. The screening version claims it can identify any child's risk for having a language and/or communication disorder; the longer version claims it can diagnose the presence of a language disorder. The CELF-4 is usually administered by speech-language pathologists (SLPs), but can also be given by other educationally-related professionals - like school psychologists.

I am not alone when I state that: if an SLP or another professional tests a nonstandard English-speaking student with a standardized test that is not dialectally neutral; and the tester has not been trained in linguistics and/or exposed to students who are dialectally different English-speakers; and the tester is culturally and/or dialectally different from the student whom s/he is about to test; and the professional used the screening or test results to support a statement of risk for or diagnosis of a lnaguage disorder - that test-administrator is acting unprofessionally, unethically and not in accordance with linguistic fact.

It's unprofessional, because one of the most important skills a school-based SLP is supposed to have learned during training, is how to distinguish between difference and deficeit. (I've always seen a sad irony in this situation because, if that testing-SLP decides a child is demonstrating dialectal difference rather than language deficeit, s/he is mandated not to work with that child because there would be no need for special edcuation placement! In other words, the very professional who is best-trained to distinguish difference from deficiency is the same professional who is not allowed to work with a student unless that student is diagnosed and labeled as language-disordered!)

It's unethical, because most of the major educationally-related professional organizations - like the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association (ASHA) and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) - have published ethical expectations in which they state - and I paraphrase:
1. Nonstandard English dialects are different and do not, per se, represent intellectual deficiency.
2. It is preferable that a test administrator be of the same cultural background as the child, particularly if the referral is related to a teacher's concerns regarding a language problem.
3. If the professional tester is of a different cultural background than the testee, the professional should:
- find someone else who can administer the test and has the same cultural background as the student;
- or, be very familiar with the dialect and culture of the student, so that responses to test items, which could be influenced by dialect, will either be omitted or not scored - with no penalty.
- be linguistically knowledgable and aware of the fact that difference does not mean deficiency;
- search for a dialectally-neutral test - like the DELV, in the case of African American children - as an alternative to the dialectally-biased test;
- use alternative and/or indirect diagnostic methods, like: recording and then evaluating self-play language and spontaneous conversation; using testing as a springboard for therapy - ask student to respond to a test item - then, if the child uses a dialectally different structure, model the standard equivalent - retest - model and teach again - retest and so on ... 

Another irony of Donald's story is that his public school district also has a professional and ethical statement that echos some of the professional organizations' expectations that were stated above. To paraphrase the school's relevant excerpt:
The IEP team cannot identify a child as having a speech or language impairment when language differences are caused by nonstandard English, regional dialect or foreign language-influenced dialects. 

Columbia Teachers College Study
The Columbia Teachers College study of the CELF-4 was published in November of 2008; it was authored by two members of the faculty from the Department of Biobehavioral Sciences within the Department of the Speech Language Pathology program. The web site  link to the report is: www.eshow/2000.com/asha/2008/handouts/1420_2195Ellswoth_Janice_108239_Nov18_2008_Time_103022AM[1].ppt 

"The CELF-4 - Potential for Bias against Speakers of African American English (AAE)"
The abstract and conclusion of this research attests that this test is skewed in a manner that results in over-identification of AAE-speaking children as language-disordered. The test is widely-used for diagnosing language disorders and, subsequently, placing many mislabeled and misdiagnosed minority children into special education programs.

Is the CELF-4 reliable for diagnosing all children?  The authors' answer is that the test's language bias is at its worst when testing a child's use of the three major linguistic categories: syntax (word order which dictates the meaning of a phrase or sentence); semantics (expressing or comprehending the standard English meaning of a phrase, sentence, word or direction through specific, standard English vocabulary usage); morphology (specific word choices, i.e., in standard English, adding or omitting an s-ending on a verb to show standard English 3rd person singular subject-verb agreement - she bakes, he jumps, it bounces - or adding an ed-ending to represent standard English regular past tense - she baked, he jumped, it bounced).

The authors emphasize that "failing" these three skill-tests are "all possible reflections of environment rather than language disorder."

The report continues by pointing out many of the problems that are present when standardized tests in general are used in diverse populations. For example:

1.  Content Bias is always present (what children learn - or don't learn - before they go to school biases their performance on most standardized tests);
2.  Test Stimuli and Testing Procedures are based on white, mainstream school practices;
3. Assumption of Familiarity with mainstream concepts, vocabulary, literacy experiences and question-answer formats;
4.  Population Samples, which are used to establish norms and standards - which, in turn, determine scores - may accurately represent the current percentages and proportionate representation of our vastly diverse cultural and linguistic groups.  BUT - and this may be the most important point - "as long as a single cut-off score on a single test is applied to all of these vastly diverse groups, no one group can be accuratesly assessed" because the vast diversity of language groups has been ignored.

At this point, some of you may be asking yourselves, "What's so terrible about a child being included in a special education program."  You're not alone in wondering about it.  Many parents believe - and/or have been led to believe - that "special" education would mean that your child would get "special" care and attention. The answer is that the negatives of a student being misdiagnosed, mislabeled and misplaced far outweigh any "special treatment" assumption - even if the "special" component is sometimes true.

Why? Because over-identification means that smart, talented children are being placed in classes where they are assumed to be not as smart or capable as they really are. Therefore, as the authors report - and hundreds of researchers before them also have concluded - the misplaced children will experience:
- Perceived Stigma, which produces decreased self-esteem, decreased ambition, decreased interest in learning;
- Reduced Expectations, for themselves and from their teachers, peers and families;
- Self-fulfilling Prophecy - low expectation equals low levels of performance.

Study after study continues to prove that on average, African American children score one standard deviation below their European American peers on standardized language tests, and evidence continues to prove that this difference is due to linguistic environment - not language impairment.

Let me digress from this study for a moment to point our a very important and relevant fact that the Columbia study did not mention: the extremely large and disproportionate percentage of special education students who drop out of school. The Civil Rights Project - formerly at Harvard, now at UCLA - reports that the over-identification and placement of minority children into Special Edcuation means that the population of dropouts also is comprised of a disproportionate number of misplaced minority students - 1/3 of whom end up in jail, with another 1/3 at risk for alcohol abuse, drug abuse and other criminal activities, unemployment and jail.

This means that a catastrophic 2/3 of our special education population - of which a disproportionately large number are misplaced minority students - become dropouts, end up in jail or are at risk for jail.

This information was gleaned from an article by the authors of a book, entitled, "Racial Inequity in Special Education." Both authors - Gary Orfield and Daniel Losen - were with the Civil Rights Project at Harvard when they compiled and edited the various articles and research studies that comprise the book's contents.  For more information, you can link to their web site at:  www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu

Back to Columbia's study of the CELF-4 and Appendix B
Appendix B is a new addition in the 4th version of the CELF. The test manual alerts the tester to turn to Appendix B if s/he is testing an African American child.  This appendix contains a list of AAE grammatical rules, which a child may use, and which would differ from the equivalent rules in standard English. The purpose of this list is to assure that testers, who are unfamiliar with AAE grammatical differences, will modify scores on particular test items that relate to this list. 

So, if a child answers, "He happy," and the tester hears and/or sees in writing that the child is omitting the auxilary "to be" verb, and that the omission is characteristic of some AAE dialects, then the tester is not supposed to subtract points for the "Dialectally Variance" (DV) response.  In addition - and this is important with respect to Donald's story - the tester is instructed to notate "DV" (Dialectal Variance) next to each response that belongs in that category.

Well, I think Appendix B is a nice gesture - but I'm afraid that's really all it is. The Teachers College study agrees. First of all, Appendix B's list is woefully short when it comes to listing every possible DV that an African American child may produce. Second, if the test-administrator is not familiar enough with AAE to recognize all of the possible differences - and be assured that differences that are not listed in Appendix B far outnumber those that are listed - the child will still be heavily penalized, and will most likely fail the screening and/or diagnostic versions. Third, in listing these expamples of AAE, the manual gives the distinct impression that speaking and writing - expressive language skills - are the only areas in which these variances would have an effect on the final score, and that most certainly is not the case! Dialectal variances will affect a myriad of language arts categories, i.e., reading comprehension and other receptive language skills like direction-giving responses, memory for nonverbal and verbal sequencing, sentence repetition (sequence memory is interrupted by the need to translate and/or compensate for vocabulary and phrases that are not in the child's environmental experience), question-answer categories, math story problems, and all of the behavioral and socio-cultural difference which were discussed above. Finally, if a tester has had little or no exposure to African American English dialects, a child's dialectally different response would very likely result in the tester simply marking the response as wrong, and subtracting two points - which, by the way - is exactly - ooops - now, I'm getting ahead of myself.  I should save all of that for when we finally did discover what the real results were of Donald's test answers on the CELF-4. 

The long and short of the authors' evaluation of the CELF-4 as a useful tool for measuring language disorders in children?  The CELF-4 is too language-biased to give a valid diagnosis of language impairment in nonstandard English-speaking children.

I apologize for the length of this particular description, but, as you can see, this section expresses the whole point of this blog! In addition, when the chronology of this blog reaches  the point at which Harriet finally receives a copy of Donald's test responses, you will see how real life proves the test's authors' conclusions.

What about the CELF-4 with respect to Donald?
This test - the CELF-4 - is the same test that was used to report to Donald's parents that he had failed a language disorder screening test, and was, therefore, at risk for having a language disorder, and needs more language and IQ testing so that the diagnosis and alternative placement could be finalized.  At that point in time, Harriet didn't know anything about the SLP who administered the test with respect to his knowledge of or membership in Donald's dialectal and cultural group. We also didn't know what specific professional training or course-work background the SLP had completed; we didn't even know if he had earned final certification from ASHA, or was still being supervised in that process as an intern, or even if he still was in training at a university and was engaging in required student teaching.

What we did know, however, is that the racial/cultural makeup of the school's student body was overwhelmingly white, and Harriet knew of no members of the administration, faculty or special services who were not white.

Well, the upshot regarding the upcoming conference was that Harriet and Luther agreed to attend the meeting and also agreed that all the professionals could attend.  When Harriet asked for my advice regarding how to handle this meeting, I advised them to listen respecfully and attentively, take a lot of notes, and ask questions that would help us to find out how much the school's professional personnel understood and acknowledged dialectal and cultural differences with respect to their usage of the CELF-4.  In addition, if the SLP had a copy of Donald's test responses to view, I recommended that Harriet checks to see whether or not the SLP wrote "DV" by any of Donald's AAE responses, and did not subtract points from those answers. 

Most importantly, and because she had already expressed this to me, my advice was for her and her husband to make it clear to the professional personnel how they felt about further testing. In doing so, firmly tell them, "No thank you," to any and all of their requests for additional screening, testing or special ed placement.  I made sure that they both understood that saying all of that - refusing more testing - was their absolute right!  They also should tell the staff that her husband and she are looking for a local SLP in private practice (which they were doing), who will work with Donald on his dialectal differences and, once again, to emphasize that there will be no more school-related testing or therapy.

I also asked Harriet to request a copy of Donald's CELF-4 screening items and his responses so I could review them and see if he really failed the test - given his dialectal variances.

Thanks again for visiting!  And, don't forget - if you have any questions, conerns, experiences you'd like to share - please write mberger@orchardbooksinc.com 

I'll be back soon.
Mary B.

Chapter 2.  Paranoia or Reality?

Posted May 1, 2010
There's an old saying that goes something like this: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you!

I used to laugh every time I heard someone say it or whenever I would think it - until I received a phone call from Harriet and her husband, Luther. They called shortly after their meeting with all of the school professionals who had had any contact with Donald. Their description of that meeting made me conclude that the old saying may very well contain more truth than humor.

The Meeting
This was the first time that I had the chance to have an extended conversation with Luther, Harriet's husband. First, it was clear that, like Harriet and their son, Luther used a variety of African American English when conversing, which, of course, had been influential - along with Harriet's speaking style - with respect to modeling the speech that Donald learned and uses.

It would be a gross understatement to report that the meeting didn't go very well!  Unfortunately, there are no emails that I can share with you that focus on the meeting because we mostly talked on the phone about it. I think they called because they were so angry and agitated and worried that they wanted immediate feedback from me. We had a long and somewhat emotional conversation, during which time I wrote down most of their comments.  I was also very aware that there are two sides to every story, and because I had not been present at the meeting, and I was only hearing one interpretation of what was said.  It was impressive, however, that Harriet and Luther both confirmed each other's report of what was said as well as their reaction to the  general attitude which permeated the professionals' presentations.  It was not until later - during a conference that I had with the same professionals - that I began to feel the same reaction that Harriet and Luther reported about the staff's attitude toward Donald and his parents.  

I think I can safely speak for Harriet and Luther when I say that the key issue for them during this meeting was what they described as the staff's arrogance, which was reflected in a lack of respect for them, their intelligence and their right to protect their child.  From the parents' perspective, there was very little give and take - the professionals talked a lot, except for the SLP who ad administered the test. He stayed strangely quiet, almost until the end of the meeting. No one on the staff asked for the couple's feelings about this issue or their opinions about that issue.

Whatever feelings and opinions Harriet was able to express occurred only because she would finally interrupt someone and ask a question. She also stated the facts - as she understood them - regarding the CELF-4 test bias and the issue of dialectal differences. When Harriet did talk about these two topics, the staff appeared to be very uncomfortable; they also appeared to be either totally unaware of or in strong disagreement with the assertion that the linguistic/cultural/environmental issues all related to Donald's test score and his current situation. 

For example, Harriet pointed to a few items on the CELF-4 response sheet that Donald got "wrong," but, as she insisted, were examples of Dialectal Variances. As the test manual instructs, those responses should not have been marked as errors - with two points subtracted - but rather as DVs - with no points subtracted. Of course, Harriet and Luther recognized only too well that the difference between errors and DVs could mean the difference between Donald failing or passing the test.  The SLP had subtracted points for each of the items to which Harriet was referring, and he finally remarked - tellingly, I think - "But that isn't Black English," and for another item, he added, "Donald doesn't use Black English."

I think that for Harriet - those remarks were the last straw. "As you well know," she said, "I'm a Black woman, and I think I ought to know what Black English responses are."  Then, when she got tired of pointing to examples of what she felt were Donald's African American English responses - and because there didn't appear to be any "DV" notations besides the responses, Harriet asked the SLP if he considered a particular response to which she pointed, as an example of AAE ... he responded by going to Appendix B at the back of the manual to find the answer.

It was becoming clear to both Harriet and Luther that the SLP had minimal if any experience with Black English-speaking students, and this made them angry and very concerned for Donald. In order to be sure about what they suspected, Harriet said to the SLP, "It sure would make me feel better if you would just give me one example of what you would score as a DV."  The SLP's response was, once again, to start looking in Appendix B for an example.

As you can well-imagine, Harriet was very frustrated with the man who had tested Donald. So, she asked his colleague - an older SLP who, for some unannounced reason, was also in attendance - about the legitimacy of this SLP administering the test in the first place, because it did not seem that he had any familiarity at all with the speaking style that their family used. The older SLP responded that Harriet was making the SLP-tester nervous, and that's why he wasn't responding immediately to her questions. "But," Harriet said to me on the phone, "even though I was frustrated and concerned, I wasn't shouting or being sarcastic or disrespectul. So, why would a professional - who claims to have more knowledge than I have about our family's language style -  be so nervous or feel so intimidated"?

Up to this point in the meeting, the principal of Donald's school had been relatively quiet - letting her staff do most of the talking. Now, she interjected with the comment that it appeared to her that the only good solution to this discussion would be for Donald to have more testing.  "No," Harriet said, "the solution to this discussion is for Donald to get help and learn to use oral and written standard English in school, which will have a positive effect on many of his classroom performances." Harriet added that her husband and she were in the process of finding an SLP in private-practice, who will work with Donald outside of school. They also plan on Donald  continuing with the private tutor, who was helping Donald learn the school's math program - a program that was new for him, which he was learning quickly in order to catch up with the rest of the children in his grade level.

Speaking of math, for his part, Luther was not only offended at his perception of the staff's treatment of his wife, but he was also concerned and angry at the staff's reaction to him when he noticed that several of Donald's answers that were marked as wrong on a math test, were in fact, correct. Luther also expressed to them that he realizes that everyone makes mistakes, but he felt it was important to point out these mistakes, because the math score also entered into the general issue of the staff trying to make the case for Donald needing special education placement.  The teacher looked, checked carefully and finally agreed that, yes - those math answers were correct, but never offered an apology, or made any offer to look at the rest of the test for other correct answers - which may also have been marked as wrong. Luther felt that in view of the grading mistakes, there may be a need for the staff to rethink their judgment regarding Donald's lack of math proficiency, but the staff did not respond in any way to that opinion.

Harriet was the one to end the meeting. She said, "We are not going to sign any release for more testing or alternative class placement." The principal responded that she hoped they would change their minds about the test, and that, "We're only trying to do what's best for Donald." And that was that - or so we thought.

After we got off the phone, I began to wonder about a couple of issues that I didn't share with Harriet and Luther ... why was the staff so persistent about additional testing and alternative placement - persistent to the point of not exactly using the word, "now," but certainly sounding and acting like it.  I also wondered why another, older SLP was present along with the SLP-tester - that was unusual. I'll elaborate on these two issues in another post.

Thanks for visiting and following the blog. And special thanks to those of you who have emailed - I love hearing from you. For those of you who haven't yet written, write to mberger@orchardbooksinc.com    

Best to all,

Chapter 3.  Where should Change Start?

Posted May 9, 2010
As you continue to follow this blog - and many thanks for doing so! - please remember that I'm not writing this narrative for the purpose of getting anyone in trouble or sending a professional or an organization on a "guilt trip." The overriding purpose of this blog is to enlighten and energize parents and educators regarding the over-identification of children who speak nonstandard English (NSE) as language-disordered. Once linguistic enlightenment occurs among those who are responsible for setting educational policies, we can begin to teach NSE-speaking students to acquire standard English and be much more assured that they'll receive an equitable education. 

In order to make change happen, we first need to figure out where the best place is to initiate change. Where are the professionals - in our vast educational network - who can influence the most  focused, wide-spread and enduring change?  I think that the easiest way to do this is to start with the end-result - the over-identification of NSE-speaking students as language-disordered. Then, we'll backtrack - step by step - down an imaginary educational stairway until we reach the bottom stair - the beginning of our professional network. That beginning is where we should have the optimal chance for establishing the most enduring, effective and equitable change that our minority NSE-speakers need in order to compete academically and professionally.

Pretend that we're standing on the top step of an educational stairway. While we're there, we can see hundreds of thousands of minority children, who have been mistakenly identified as language-disordered - most of them were labeled as such solely because of their nonstandard English dialects.

Go down one stair, and we see the hundreds of biased standardized tests, whose usage over many decades has contributed to the mislabeling and misdiagnosing of so many dialectally different children as language-disordered.

As we go down one more step, we see the test-administrators.  In the case of language disorder referrals in schools, the testers are usually the school-based speech-language pathologists (SLPs). Regrettably, it appears that too many SLPs are not being adequately trained in linguistics or schooled in the how and why of dialectal differences. In addition, our SLPs are not being adequately warned about using standardized tests, which claim to diagnose language-disorders in all children.  In the case of NSE-speaking minority students, however, these tests have been studied, researched and repeatedly proven to be dialectally and culturally-biased.  In addition, too many of our SLPs  have not been encouraged to search for _ or clinically trained to administer - dialectally neutral tests, like the DELV, which I'll describe in a later post. 

This apparent gap in the required university course work in most speech-language pathology department's student-training has serious consequences. The sad statistics about over-identification of NSE-speakers as language-disordered only reflect what the SLP-testers diagnose: two to four times more NSE-speaking minority children than their SE-speaking peers (depending on the state) labeled and diagnosed as language-disordered, and disproportionately placed into special education programs.

What I find so sad and ironic is that my colleagues - the SLPs - could easily serve as on-site trainers of teachers and other administrative personnel regarding NSE dialects and related linguistic issues, as well as demonstrating methodology for standard English-acquisition. They can't do that, however, because they don't know the linguistic information or the acquisition-methodology.  If they could train the faculty, I'm confident there would be an immediate decrease in the the number of inappropriate teacher-referrals made for language disorders.  But the SLPs are not the bottom step; their skills are dependent on their university training.

Take another step down the stairway and we see the classroom teachers. Classroom teachers are responsible for about 95% of the referrals that request language-disorder screening for NSE-speaking students, who subsequently end up as part of the over-identified population. In addition, when teachers refer their NSE-speaking students, nearly 100% of those referrals are based solely on the students' speaking styles!  

It's important to note, however, that these referrals usually occur when the classroom teachers' cultural and dialectal backgrounds differ from their referred students.

Similar to the SLPs, during their university training, classroom teachers are rarely required to take a linguistic course; they're rarely trained to recognize dialectal variances; they're rarely schooled to understand why these variances do not equal language impairment per se; they rarely receive specific instruction on how to implement a systematic approach for teaching children to acquire oral and written standard English before the children are tested, and before they are referred for language disorders.

Take one more step down the stairway and we see the school staff-development personnel
, who are responsible for providing training workshops and in-services for their K-12 teachers and school administrators.  These professionals - like SLPs and classroom teachers - also graduated from university training departments - in this case, departments of education.  It's likely, therefore, that they are as linguistically unenlightened and untrained as their colleagues regarding NSE-speaking students. Consequently, they would tend not to recognize the need for teacher-training workshops, which would focus on and provide linguistic knowledge and systematic techniques aimed at teaching oral and written standard English to NSE-speaking students. If staff-development professionals received adequate training in these areas, they would most likely institute an annual orientation workshop for new teachers, which would focus on linguistics, dialectal differences and how to implement a standard English-acquisition methodology for dialectally-different children.  Staff-development folks, however, are not on the bottom step; just like their school-based colleagues, their skills and knowledge are the result of how complete or incomplete their university training was.

Still with me?!  Take one more step down and we see the university undergraduate and graduate programs in the departments of education, speech-language pathology and other educationally-related professional departments like student counseling, school psychology and school social work. These programs prepare and grant professional degrees to our future SLPs, classroom teachers, school principals and other school administrators, all of whom will be certified to practice their professions in our schools, and, therefore, will have a profound impact on our children's academic, professional and personal futures.

Sharing that same step with the university departments are the various professional organizations, which grant professional certification to each graduate. This certification is supposed to assure all of us that each graduate-educator has developed the skills and knowledge necessary to teach or test or counsel all school children in a skilled and equitable fashion. Along with professional certification, the professional organizations publish ethical-practice statements - discussed in a previous post - for which our new educators are supposed to be held accountable.

It doesn't take more than a little common sense to recognize that the professional organizations - like the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) - are as important as the universities when it comes to assuring us that a teacher or an SLP deserves our trust when working with our children. This is because the organizations publish ethical statements regarding the manner in which their professionals are expected to implement their skills. By virtue of the fact that they have these ethical requirements, the organizations assure our communities that children are being educated equitably and ethically.

Questions: How can we expect our new educators to practice ethically - in accordance with their respective organizations expectations, and in a manner that is fair for all children - unless they are equipped with the skills and knowledge that would allow them to do so?  What is the point of writing ethical statements that, for example, expect SLPs to know how to distinguish between a nonstandard dialect and a language deficeit, if they havn't been trained to do so? In addition, why won't professional organizations insist that certification would only be awarded if a university's curriculum requires the courses that are necessary for SLP-students and education-students to obtain the knowledge and skills that are necessary to practice in oaccordance with those organizations' ethical requirements? 

As well-intentioned as they are, "politically correct" ethical statements do nothing for our minority NSE-speaking school children if our educators are linguistically and methodologically unprepared to implement them.

Early in this blog's first post, I set forth three goals that the family and I hoped to achieve by telling their story. We emphasized the need for university departments of education and speech-language pathology to include on their lists of required courses, at least one course that includes linguistics a how-to methodology course for teaching oral and written standard English to NSE-speaking students. Both components would focus specifically on NSE-speaking students and their dialects - particularly African American, Native American and Latino American English-speaking students, who constitute the largest percentage of over-identified children in special education programs.  Because the focus would be so specific, it seems to me that it would be easy to combine both of the necessary components into one course.  I have a pretty good idea about that because I combine both components in all of my conference workshops, school district training workshops and university workshop-courses.

The linguistics component should be designed to teach students: how and why NSE dialects are rule-driven, derived and very different from "slang"; how and when the nonstandard dialectal rules may differ from standard rules; the profound and systemic impact that language bias against NSE dialects has on educational policies and that, perhaps, the most important impact is the policy of testing NSE-speaking children before they have had a chance to systematically acquire and master oral and written standard English in school; and how to distinguish a dialectally-biased standardized test from a dialectally neutral test.  That's just for starters.

The how-to methodology component should include training in a step-by-step procedure - similar to an ESL progression - for teaching NSE-speaking students to acquire oral and written standard English grammar and pronunciation for use in school, on tests, and ultimately, in the workplace. It's my belief that this method should be taught from a bi-dialectal point of view. This means that the students should not be encouraged to abandon their first speaking styles; instead, they should be taught to situationally code-switch between the nonstandard and standard dialects, using the one that is more comfortable, appropriate and beneficial for the circumstances at hand. 

Learning only one of the two components makes no sense. Each component is inexorably tied to the other; each compliments the other. On the one hand, gaining an understanding of some important and basic linguistic concepts regarding nonstandard dialects would be fantastic for teachers, students and parents.  Teachers would bring a whole new and respectful mindset into their classrooms regarding their attitudes about their NSE-speaking students and their dialects; this new mindset would have a tremndous and positive impact on the parent-teacher relationship and that of the whole community. And, I'm confident that inappropriate teacher-referrals and over-identification would decrease. 

If, however, training in the acquisition methodology were to be ignored, teachers would end up with having to make a no-win choice: do they give a patronizing pat on students' heads and say, "It's ok - I know that your speaking and writing styles are legitimate - go ahead and use them with your family and friends, but make sure you use standard English in school," without being skilled in how to teach students - rule by rule - to do just that! - use standard English in school and on standardized tests! 

Learning French is not a quick fix - at least it certainly wasn't for me!  Learning standard English as a second English dialect is also not a quick fix. In fact, in many ways, it's much more difficult than learning a foreign language because many of dialectal differences are so insidiously subtle - often just one phoneme (one sound) that is different. For example: she happy/she's happy (she/shez); he cook/he cooked (cook/cookt).

The corollary of the above - teaching methodology without linguistic knowledge - is equally harmful. Teaching how important it is to acquire oral and written standard English without assuring your students of the rule driven, derived, complex and legitimate nature of their dialects would strongly imply that standard English is the only worthwhile English dialect - everything else is inferior and worthless - and that means students would feel the need to choose one or the other - their family, friends, neighbors, identity, history and the dialect that describes all of them - or you, the teacher and your dialect. Judging by what's happened so far, teachers lose that battle - and of course, ultimately,  the students lose an academic future.

What does all of this have to do with Donald and his parents?
In the case of the school professionals, who were present at the meeting with Harriet and Luther, their respective undergraduate/graduate professional programs and certifying organizations did not "cross the finish line" when it came to course work, certification and the skills that are necessary for fulfilling ethical expectations. Not one professional who attended that meeting - not the principal, classroom teacher, school counselor or the two SLP's - demonstrated any real linguistic knowledge of or experience with African American English (AAE), the NSE dialect that Donald - their student - speaks.

In addition, not one of those school-based professionals demonstrated any methodological know-how for teaching a NSE-speaking student to acquire oral and written standard English in order to perform in school in a manner that is commensurate with his real intelligence, and is in synch with the classroom expectations of the teacher.

Collectively, the only solution that the professionals could come up with - in terms of Donald's classroom issues - was first, to refer him for language disorder screening; then label him at risk for a language disorder; then use the "parent/teacher" conference to ask - one might say, "to pressure" - his parents into signing for more testing - with the apparent goal of offically and legally placing him in one of the district's special education programs.   

In addition, the only diagnostic procedure that the professionals considered - in order to "measure" and "prove" Donald's "language disorder," was to test him with an instrument - the CELF-4  - that is notorious for being culturally and dialectally-biased. Then, while administering the screening items, the SLP-tester didn't bother to follow the test manual's instructions about Appendix B, which offered special instructions for testing African American children. The instructions, and the list of Black English features - although inadequate - should have at least given a strong hint to the SLP-tester that some special issues needed to be considered when testing Donald and other African American children. The SLP ignored those instructions and proceded to subtract one or two points from all of Donald's responses that were clearly spoken in AAE.  The SLP also ignored Appendix B's instruction to mark each AAE-usage as DV (Dialectal Variance), in order to show why no points were subtracted.  As mentioned before, the appendix at least attempted to be dialectally-sensitive, even though its list of AAE features was woefully incomplete, and in several instances, incorrect. Because he never referred to the appendix, however, and unfairly subtracted points when he shouldn't have, the SLP concluded that Donald had failed the screening - thus, the family's ordeal.

This sad and damaging situation - repeated around our country a thousand-fold - is a parental and educational nightmare of which  most professionals and parents are unaware. It's very clear that the SLP-tester should not have been allowed to administer the test to an African American child; he demonstrated total ignorance regarding African American dialectal variances, and their profound impact on producing standard English test responses.

Having said that, I recognize that the SLP's actions do not reflect negatively on his sincerity or general skill, nor does it reflect on other SLPs and classroom teachers.  I'm confident of that because I've spoken with and conducted training workshops for thousands of teachers and SLPs who are creative thinkers, empathic and intellectually curious enough to independently look for unbiased solutions. But, because they so often come up empty-handed - either because they can't find relevant and effective materials or their staff-development personnel don't provide relevant workshops, those teachers feel frustrated and helpless. Consequently, they often give up their searches and either resort to referring students for screening or decide to ignore the students' dialectal difference in order to avoid insulting and embarrassing them. Referring or ignoring are not acceptable solutions. 

Classroom teachers have been deprived of the proper information and methdological skill-building. The NSE-speaking students have been deprived of their teachers being able to give them an education that is equal to their SE-speaking peers. If NSE-speakers are referred for testing, those children are also deprived of SLP-testers who, with the proper training, would opt out of screening, disabuse the classroom teachers of their concerns regarding the relationship of dialectal variances and language disorders; they are the perfect professionals to conduct some training/inservice/demonstration sessions for the teachers.  Because of a lack of appropriate training, however, the number of over-identified children who have been pushed into special education, and then become high school dropouts, is increasing at alarming rates.

So - where do you thing change should start?  Do you agree that we should start with the training institutions and professional organizations? I hope that reading this blog will encourage you to engage in conversations regarding these important issues with your colleagues, your friends, your children's teachers and principals - as well as former and/or current professors.  I also hope I hear from you and some of the people with whom you converse.
 A reminder: A book to which I referred in the previous post is very relevant to all that was discussed in this post. "Racial Inequity in Special Education," edited by Daniel Losen and Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA (formerly at Harvard University), presents much of the same chronology that my descending stairway described, but does so with more cited research and statistics.  Much of my information comes from my personal and professional experience as well as researching reports and studies. Their statistical reports and my anecdotal experiences agree: the problem of over-identification is profoundly serious and systemic. Once again, you can link to their site at: www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu 

In the next several post, I'll return to Donald and his family's story, along with our many email exchanges.  Thanks for emailing me ...  mberger@orchardbooksinc.com

Best to all,
Mary B.

Chapter 4.  The Next Move

Posted May 10, 2010
Shortly after the phone conversation that Harriet, Luther and I had about the multi-professional meeting, Harriet called to talk about the possibility of my having a conversation with some of the school professionals who were at that meeting. I thought it was a good idea, so she was going to try to contact some of them to see if they were interested.  She also wanted to tell me that Luther didn't express to me how angry he really was during the meeting - angry, in his view, about how  the staff was treating Harriet; he also was very upset about the classroom teacher's lack of concern regarding the grading mistakes on Donald's math test. Harriet could sense that his anger was building and was scared that he was going to get up and walk out of the meeting; he was able to control himself, and she was very relieved.

                                                                        *  *  *   

Date:     February, 2009
To:         Harriet T.
From:    Mary B.
Subj:     Re: next step

Dear Harriet:
I understand your husband's frustration and anger and impatience ... it's 2009 and we're still dealing with bias - not to mention that the bias is affecting his and your son. Actually, I wouldn't have blamed him a bit for walking out - but - it would not have solved anything and probably would have exacerbated the situation.

When you talk to the counselor, if he seems a little reluctant to talk to me - an outsider - without any knowledge of me or what I do - suggest that he visit the web site, if you think that would help.  I'll wait to hear from you. Until then - stay well and calm - and ask your husband to do the same :)
                                                                        *  *  *

Date:     March, 2009
To:         Mary
From:    Harriet
Subj:     Re: next step

Hi Mary,
I contacted the school yesterday and the counselor and the speech therapist is (sic) willing to talk with you about Donald. I need to sign a release, and I will contact  you once I receive the okay.
Thank you,

                                                                        *  *  *

Independently, Harriet, Luther and I were all beginning to acknowledge that the staff's attitude, lack of linguistic knowledge and lack of exposure to diverse English dialects may constitute too steep of a hill to climb with respect to their judgment of Donald's intelligence.  I was hoping that a meeting with some of the staff might help, but in the meantime, we were considering the idea of Donald changing schools in the fall.  Our first choice was to look for another public school - one that was staffed with professionals who had more experience and knowledge regarding different cultures and different English dialects.

                                                                        *  *  *  

Date:     March, 2009
To:         Harriet
From:    Mary
Subj:     Public School Districts

Hi Harriet:     
I've done a bit of research and googled some public schools that sound like they would be an ok fit for what you've said you want ... but you'll need to do more research. You can google the names of some of the schools that interest you and/or are nearest to your home - maybe they sound familiar and you might know people who send their kids to them.

Also on the google listings, whenever you look for schools, you'll see a site called, "Best Schools." Click on it, and there'll be a tab called Students - and you can click on that tab to get an ethnic/racial breakdown of the student population - you mentioned your interest in sending Donald to a school whose staff is accustomed to working with African American students and their families ... also, you can get info on teacher/student ratio, etc.

By the way, I googled Donald's school at the same site and discovered - by clicking on Testing - that the 3rd grade last year had less than half of their white males score in the Proficient range for Language Arts on the state achievement test ... it made me wonder if the school then referred over half of their white 3rd grade boys for language disorder testing :) 

Anyway, hope to hear soon re the possibility of meeting with some of the staff, and also I'm interested to know how you and Donald did this week-end with the materials.

                                                                        *  *  *

Date:     March, 2009
To:         Mary
From:    Harriet
Subj:      re: Public School Districts

Hi Mary,
Thank you so much for the info!  We started the speech program this weekend. Donald really enjoyed the section on adding s for plural.  We made up some really funny sentences. He is really paying attention to plural s, and he corrected me a couple of times. We are off to a good start.

You and I think alike. I told my husband that we may need to change Donald to another school district. He said to do what ever we needed to do for Donald. 
Thank (sic) once again.

                                                                       *  *  *

Date:     March, 2009
To:         Harriet
From:    Mary
Subj:      re: Public School Districts

That's great news about the lesson!  I'm going to warn you about something, though ... Donald will probably acquire new standard features in a permanent, fluent fashion more quickly than you and your husband :)  His young brain and attitude are much more amenable to change. But, if you put those CDs in your car and work on them while going to work and driving everywhere - as moms do - you'll be surprised how quickly you'll start to learn the new rules, too. Most importantly, have fun with it - if Donald looks like he needs a break and is getting tired or bored, rest or go to a different lesson.

I'm still looking for a good SLP to work with Donald ... most of them want to test and work on traditional language disorder issues - obviously, that won't do. I know I'll eventually find someone who's willing to learn some new techniques and methodology and use materials that focus specifically on dialectal differences.

Am delighted with your progress report! Keep in touch.

                                                                         *  *  *

I knew that it was going to be problematic for Harriet to work with Donald on acquiring new standard English rules; she wouldn't be able to model the new rules for him during spontaneous conversations outside of the lesson times.  But, I felt it was much better for them to be practicing together, instead of waiting for the new SLP to work with Donald, and as they continue to work together, she'll be learning the new rules along with Donald.

In the next email, Harriet reports about two important breakthroughs - one for Donald and one for herself.

                                                                          *  *  *

Date:     March, 2009
To:         Mary
From:    Harriet
Subj:      re: Public School Districts

Yes!  Donald woke up this morning using the plural s!  I have come to realize that the day I googled you was meant to be.

Also, a couple of months ago, a spokesperson for the ________ Association invited me to do a presentation. I always turn down invitations to speak or present, because I feel inadequate due to my dialect. But, I have just accepted the invitation.  I need to start somewhere.

I attended a seminar a couple of years ago at _____ University.  Dr. ______ was the guess (sic) speaker.  She spoke so eloquently. After I left the seminar, I remember saying to myself how nice it must be to have such perfect grammar and speech. I have so much to say, but feel I am unable to express myself. I would like to write articles and accept more invitations to speak.

Thank you,

                                                                        *  *  *

When I hear personal stories like the one Harriet just expressed - and I've heard way too many - I feel torn between sorrow and elation: sorrow for all of the children and adults whose lives have been wasted, and so often this was only because they lacked equitable opportunity, educationally; elation for their new outlook when given that opportunity - a new sense of self-worth.  I saw it happen so many times during the 18 years I taught at Chicago's Columbia College.  First, like Harriet, the students would feel uplifted and relieved when they learned the linguistic truth about the legitimacy of their dialects - it could get very emotional, and I learned early on to always have a box of tissues on my desk! Then, as we began to work on acquiring and using the new standard rules, I watched as they gradually realized that, yes! - they could learn to speak standard English. It was then that they began to develop a new sense of life's possibilities - permission to dream.  

It never ceases to amaze and frustrate me to think about how little Harriet and the students needed in order to make them realize that that they were smart, that they were always worthy of others' attention and respect and that anyone who could fluently speak one English dialect could always learn another English dialect!  All they needed was a little linguistic information, a little encouragement and an effective, nonjudgmental, systematic methodology by which they could acquire and master oral and written standard English.  

As Harriet wrote in her email, "I need to start somewhere."  I have no doubt that it took a lot of courage to accept the speaking invitation, but I know she'll continue to see the possibilities in her future, and to work hard to fulfill them.  I also think that this ongoing experience with Donald and his school has made her as determined as anyone I've encountered, not to allow her son to be taught to doubt his own worth, like her experience.  Some positive momentum is taking hold of this family, and we need to keep heading in that positive direction.

Many thanks, again for following this blog.  Those of you who haven't yet written, please know that your comments, concerns, opinions and related experiences are very important to me. Email me at mberger@orchardbooksinc.com  

I'll be back soon - take care,

Chapter 5.  Buyer's Remorse 

Posted May 11, 2010
After making a major purchase or  promising to do voluntary work, do you ever wonder, "What in the world was I thinking"?!  Well, shortly after she accepted an invitation - for the first time - to do a workshop, Harriet began to feel some major league "buyer's remorse"!  She feared that she had really taken way too long of a leap without looking more carefully at what she had agreed to do.  Self-doubt was definitely replacing exhileration.  I wasn't surprised, but I wanted her to know that I would and could help.

                                                                         *  *  *

Date:     March, 2009
To:         Harriet
From:    Mary
Subj:     Presentation

By the way, where is the site and what is the date for you workshop?

                                                                         *  *  *

Date:     March, 2009
To:        Mary
From:    Harriet
Subj:      re: Presentation

I am in panic mode right now.  The ______ Association's workshop that I'm going to present is so soon!!!  It's going to be on _____, and the site is the ______.  It's turning out to be a big deal - the organization's directors told me that television people are going to be there!

                                                                        *  *  *

I told her not to worry ... that once she had her presentation outlined, I would listen to her practice and give plenty of feedback and suggestions.  I also reminded her that what she's going to say is not a bit different from what she says every day, individually, to her organization's clients.  She agreed and sounded like she felt better - not good - just a little better :)

Meanwhile, Harriet had notified me by phone that she had signed a release agreeing to a meeting in which I would participate along with the school professionals who had attended the parent/teacher conference with Harriet and Luther.  The release was the school's way of making sure that it was ok with the parents for the staff to share confidential reports and findings with me regarding Donald's school performances in the classroom and on the CELF-4 screening test.  The release form protects the school district and is professionally and ethically justifiable.

The school hadn't tried to contact me, so I called and left a message with various dates and times that I would be available.  A staff member returned my call and left word that they had chosen a date for the following month with an afternoon time and a time-frame of about an hour. Considering how busy schools and school personnel are in the spring (hiring and firing, budget statements and purchasing, concerts and plays, grades and - most important to the schools -  state testing), I felt it was a pretty generous amount of time. I began to feel more optimistic about the outcome of the meeting. Even though I was a little disappointed at having to wait longer than I wanted for the meeting to take place, the delayed date gave me a little more time to make sure that what I had to say would fit into the hour after listening to what they had to say.

Once again ... Paranoia or Reality? 
As I was outlining what I felt were the most important points to emphasize at this future meeting - for example, what was said at the parent/conference meeting; info regarding dialects; info regarding dialectally-biased and dialectally-neutral tests -  some ugly thoughts and questions began to take form in my mind. 

First, it interested me that the staff went to such exaggerated lengths to persuade Harriet and Luther to agree to more testing for Donald.  According to the parents, the staff never really talked about anything else - they kept returning to the subject of  testing,  and the immediate need for a final diagnosis.  I've attended many meetings such as that one, and usually the tester and/or the administrative personnel will back off a little and say something like, "No harm in waiting a semester - we can see if there's any progress and then meet, again." 

As I mentioned above, I also was well aware that most states directed their school districts to conduct the state-sponsored achievement testing in the spring.  And,  all of this made me wonder ... were the school professionals trying to get Donald out of the mainstream classroom so his test scores would not have to be counted?

In addition, over the last 10 or so years, research was showing that mainstream classroom placements were more academically and socially beneficial for the children whose physical and/or cognitive issues have traditionally caused them to be placed in isolated special education schools or classes. These children's issues included hearing loss, vision limitation, motoric and/or speech and/or cognitive problems, all of which could have necessitated wheelchair-use.   In many school districts across our country - particularly in wealthy, predominantly white school districts - this traditional population of special education children gradually decreased, until - along with that decrease, came the gradually decreasing need for special education professionals.  Was this the situation in Donald's school district?  Was Donald being used to "pad" special education classes like so many other nonstandard English-speaking minority children? 

I'll try to be be back soon! 
Stay well,

Chapter 6.  The Search for a Private SLP

Posted June 1, 2010
Hello?!  Is there any SLP out there, who can teach oral and written standard English to an intelligent youngster, who speaks a nonstandard English dialect and is not language-disordered?  If you're out there somewhere - please call me - ASAP!

Date:     March, 2009
To:        Harriet
From:   Mary
Subj:    SLP Search for Donald

Hi Harriet:

Well, I actually and finally spoke with someone in the Speech Pathology Dept. at ___________ Univ.  She is a professor, has done research on nonstandard English dialects, and appeared to be a more than a little dismayed when I told her about the different persons at the clinic describing totally different programs that the clinic offered. One person said that there were "bi-dialectal programs offered for the community adults and children," but another said that "we don't do therapy like that." I also made several calls, left several voice messages and received no call-backs.  It was not the best p.r. behavior for a clinic which touted itself as serving the community.

 The professor was very nice, but there were some things she said to me that concern me. First of all, if Donald attends the university's speech-language clinic for therapy/tutoring, he would be working with a graduate student along with a clinical supervisor.  I'm very familiar with this setup (you probably are, too), as I also have been a clinical grad student during my graduate training at Northwestern, and I worked with youngsters on various speech-language issues.  So, I do trust that a grad student would do a good job with Donald, but only if s/he has had a Linguistics class and some exposure to the content of the specific type of therapy that Donald needs.

In addition, it sounds like the clinic doesn't have relevant materials, because the professor said that "we call this kind of therapy, 'Accent Addition.'  In my mind, that title alludes strongly to a type of therapy - which I've also done - called, 'Accent Reduction' for 2nd language learners. Donald is not a second language learner - he's English-speaking and would be adding a new dialect of English - standard English. There are several techniques that would be almost identical in both types of therapies - but - as I said before, as important as techniques, the student clinician who works with Donald has to have studied some linguistics and have some personal and/or training background regarding dialects, bi-dialectalism and all of the other cultural and historical issues related to bi-dialectalism as compared with bi-lingualism. And, my guess, from the way the professor talked, was that none of the grad students would have that necessary background.

The professor must have sensed concern in my voice because she quickly added that the director of the clinic is African American and is both personally and professionally familiar with the concept of dialectal difference.  That made me feel a little better, but then, when I asked her if they used the DELV at the clinic, she said they don't have it - it's expensive - and, she added, if children demonstrate what the clinic feels is representative of language disorders - not differences - then the student clinicians will test them, anyway.  Well, just because someone is African American, that does not necessarily mean that s/he has personal, linguistic or methodological background for working on 2nd dialect-learning with an African American child.

Also - come on - the DELV is too expensive?  How are you supposed to make a fair assessment of an African American child if that child uses African American English and you need to distinguish between disorder and difference and are only using dialectally-biased tests?!  You're a university - and you claim to serve all of your area's  communities, whose neighborhoods reflect a vast racial, ethnic and economic diversity!  A one-time expenditure should not keep you from purchasing and using a dialectally neutral and fair assessment tool!

So, in my estimation, they don't have the proper tool with which to test Donald - and it sounds like, regardless of the fairness of their test, they will feel the need to test him. In addition, clinics usually try to coordinate their programs with the public schools in their area - which, in many ways is excellent for keeping everyone apprised of progress and problems, but, in Donald's case, it may mean that the privacy of their test results may be compromised and I don't think you're interested in having any more labels in his school folder.

This is all just to say, Harriet, that I'm concerned - about experienced and inexperienced therapists and their irresistibile urge to test, plus, the question regarding relevant materials and the skills to implement the materials. If it's okay with you, though, I'd like to mention this clinic as an option when I have the conference with Donald's school's professionals because I don't have any other realistic offers, and I want the school personnel to know that we're pursuing a prescribed course of action.  So, meanwhile, I will continue to look for a private, independent SLP who is conversant with dialectal differences or at least willing to learn about them, and is willing to delay testing for language disorder, unless s/he has an unbiased standardized test to administer. It also would be helpful if s/he's willing to use the materials with which you and Donald are already working.  You also should keep trying to find someone - maybe the yellow pages where private SLPs advertise - and, of course, the web.

How's everything with all of you?
Keep in touch.

                                                                         *  *  *

Date:     March, 2009
To:         Mary
From:    Harriet
Subj:     Re:  SLP Search for Donald

Mary, thank you. This really makes me sad. Why is this so taboo and hard to be accepted. I should contact Oprah!

                                                                       *  *  *

Date:     March, 2009
To:         Harriet
From:    Mary
Subj:     Re: SLP Search for Donald

You know, Harriet - in the field of Speech and Language Pathology - it's not so much that it's taboo and not accepted - it's more that speech clinicians in the public schools are not governmentally mandated to work with dialectal differences - only with disorders that are related to speech and language.  So, accordingly, they are supposed to be trained to distinguish between difference and disorder - which is good - but they are not mandated to work with a difference, which, ultimately, is really bad. The problem - and it's a big one - is that because of that mandate, we're left with virtually no one in the public schools who knows how to deal with or has any system in place for therapeutically dealing with dialectal differences.  And, as you now well know, the only way a public school SLP can work with dialectally different children is to label them as - guess what - language-disordered.  In addition, very very few professionals in education have linguistic training, so appropriate materials are rare, as is staff development training workshops in the areas of linguistics and teaching methodologies for NSE-speakers.  Therefore, any expertise for teaching children with dialectal differences is not common in the public schools, university clinics or - most anywhere ... except of course, where I've conducted training workshops! :)

As for Oprah :) ... she's already had highly respected and scholarly university linguists on her program discussing Black English (remember the Ebonics hysteria back in 1997?), but the linguists usually aren't able to personally - or even professionally - relate to every day classroom issues, and, consequently, have little to offer regarding specific methodology. Rather, they are excellent reporters of linguistic history and dialectal descriptions, but are more about publishing their research regarding those two issues.  In my recollection, Oprah's never had anyone on like you, who could tell a real life every day story or, for that matter, someone with practical experience and a reality-based method like ... well, like mine! :)

But, seriously - hang in!  We'll find someone. There are SLPs everywhere, who are empathic and always interested in trying something they've not done before.  I know there are and I know we'll find one!

Take care.

                                                                       *  *  *

Date:     March, 2009
To:         Mary
From:    Harriet
Subj:      Re: SLP Search for Donald

Thank you, Mary.  Maybe I could record some sessions when Donald and I work together to show our improvement from beginning to end. With me as a college educated adult and Donald as a young student - it would be interesting and informative. I must say, I am very excited. I really believe this will help me with my writing as well.
Thank you,

                                                                        *  *  * 

Tomorrow's post will focus on Donald, information-gathering and clarifying in preparation for the meeting with the school professionals who were present at the parent/teacher conference with Harriet and Luther. 

Continued thanks for following the blog.  

Chapter 7.  Donald: The Whole Child

June 4, 2010
Like most human beings, Donald presents different attitudes and dispositions, depending on the circumstances. The first time I "met" this charming 8 year old little boy, was shortly after Harriet's initial email. She and I were on the phone, it was the week-end and Donald was home. I asked to speak with him, so I could get an idea of his speaking style, and he and I spoke for a little over 10 minutes.

After our hellos were said, I asked him what he was doing on this school-free day - I'll never forget his answer, during which time he adopted a very serious and grown-up tone: "My closet is a big mess, so I'm cleanin' it."  We talked about school a little and he said he liked recess, science and reading. At the beginning of our conversation, Donald paused a lot between words, sounding very much to me like he had been corrected a lot in the past, and was anxious to say everything in what he felt I would consider an acceptable manner.  After a little while - probably because he became confident that I wasn't paying attention to his grammar or pronunciation -  he seemed to relax, used more of a natural and fluent conversational tone and just talked. The more relaxed he became, the less pausing there was and the more fluent his speech was. And that was when he started to use the followingAAE grammatical constructs and pronunciations: he left off s-endings for plural nouns, for noun and pronoun possessives, and for 3rd person singular present tense verbs as well as some past tense ed-endings; sometimes he omitted "is" and "are" when they are used as auxilary verbs for "ing" sentences, like (he going to play at home; they my friends); at times, he omitted consonant-endings of words and/or consonants when they were a part of a consonant cluster, like (firs) for (first); and he pronounced (ax) instead of (ask). All of this occurred without him sensing that I was actually asking questions that I hoped would produce specific grammatical and pronunciation constructs. I did this in an indirect manner in order to see if he had modeled Harriet's speaking style and Luther's speaking style. Then, suddenly, like so many other children, Donald told me that when he is finished with cleaning his closet, he's going to play, and I said to go on and thanks for saying hi.

Donald was age-appropriate in his speech and language, in his manner and in his person-to-person conversational behavior and know-how. Remember -  if a child uses grammar and pronunciation that differ from standard English, it does not mean, per se, that the child is not "speaking at age level." It does mean that  s/he's  using grammatical and pronunciation rules that differ from standard English rules. Donald also was age-appropriate when he abruptly - and somewhat  bluntly - expressed that he needed to get off the phone so that he could finish his work on the closet - because, then, he would be allowed get to the fun stuff - like a computer game or tv. :) 

Donald's Classroom Grades, Report Cards and Teachers' Remarks 
Shortly after our first several email exchanges and the parent/teacher conference that Harriet and Luther attended, Harriet faxed me all of Donald's 2nd grade and most of his 3rd grade report cards, as well as some classroom reading and spelling test grades.  Other than the 3rd grade teacher's concern and request for "language disorder" screening - which the 2nd grade teacher never mentioned - both teachers reported other similar issues regarding his behavior in class. 

Following, is an overview of teachers' remarks and report card grades - relevant to our discussion:
    • In Reading, both teachers had him assigned to the highest reading groups, and he remained in those groups during the whole academic year for each grade.  I would just like to add that being placed permanently for two years in the highest reading groups is a noteworthy feat for a nonstandard English-speaking youngster in a predominantly white school district and classrom - and - I think it begs the question of even considering this child as having a "language disorder."
  • In 2nd grade Reading, he earned points that were higher than that grade-level's expectation, and his final grade in reading was "Excellent." Again ... language-disordered?
  • His 2nd grade Writing Skills  - for the most part - exceeded or met expectation. When specific problems were cited by the teacher, although she gave no examples, her reasons appear to allude to dialectal issues - not language impairment. For instance, the teacher commented - with respect to the item for writing sentences - that Donald sometimes omits words and word-endings - just as I described above regarding his speech during our first phone conversation, during which time he demonstrated omission of "is" and "are" and omission of most s-endings and ed-endings. 

    It's important to note that most teachers and most people, who are unfamiliar with nonstandard dialects like AAE, would consider the omission of "is" in the sentence, "She walking home," a "missing word" rather than a  dialectal rule.  In addition, omission of word-endings is another characteristic of AAE dialectal rules - also described above. 

    Another and final comment written by Donald's 2nd grade teacher, regarding his writing skills, was his periodic "weakness, due to a lack of vocabulary," when writing sentences. Again, there were no specific examples, so I can only surmise that because I heard appropriate and, perhaps more importantly,  varied vocabulary, it could be a judgment based on what the teacher's background is regarding word-usage - words that are more familiar in certain written contexts become more acceptable to her.  Children, who are as young as Donald,  can only use vocabulary that is modeled by those close to us - so, the use or non-use of standard English speakers' vocabulary may - again - be a cultural and background judgement - not a fair judgment of intellect. As we get older, if we engage in independent reading as well as being more exposed to people from other cultures, our vocabulary broadens and increases tremendously.  Donald wasn't quite there, yet.
  • In 3rd grade, most of the grades he received for spelling tests were between 90-100%; only three tests were below 90%. 

    I would say that the most serious concerns of both teachers related to what they considered as impulsivity. This was illustrated by behavior that sometimes resulted in  rude remarks or "rude facial postures" directed at teachers and/or peers; not practicing an acceptable social space with peers;  verbal outbursts that were usually verbal objections to something that had been said to him by teachers and/or peers; not following directions as well as his age would suggest he should; organizational skills that seemed weak at times; having trouble focusing and paying attention to a speaker or an assigned task.  Both teachers expressed progress in all of these areas within the written remarks on each report card, but the 3rd grade teacher included these issues in her request for language-disorder testing.

    Would I be unfair if I were to say that the majority of educators would pronounce a diagnosis of Attention Deficeit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficeit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or just an old fashioned statement of a Behavioral Disorder after reading that final bullet's statement of "symptomatology"?  In fact, there is another serious over-identification issue, which has been researched for at least the last 20 years, with consistent and ever-growing statistics. Like "language disorder" diagnoses for minority nonstandard English-speakers, "behavioral disorders," ADD and ADHD are the three most over-identified behavioral issues for African American youngsters and adolescent male students with disturbing and corresponding statistics of disproportionate punishment.  Many of these studies describe these over-identification issues as "pipelines to jail."

    Following are several of the hundreds of web links that you can find that cite statistics and research relevant to this discussion:



    And, once again, don't forget, "Racial Inequities in Special Education," by Losen and Orfield:

    Back to Donald
    Let's say a child is having difficulty in school with reading. What do you think should be the first piece of information about that child that we need to have in order to eliminate it as a possible cause for the reading difficulty?  I would say, first, get the child to the opthomologist for a vision test to see if s/he needs glasses.

    And, let's say that a child appears to be having a problem with following directions that are spoken. What do you think should be the first piece of information about that child that we need in order to eliminate it as a possible cause for the difficulty s/he's having with following oral directions?  I would say - did you? - that the child should have a hearing screening and/or hearing test to see if there's a hearing problem, of one kind or another - and there are several kinds of hearing issues that would need to be considered.

    Over the course of time since Harriet and I had our first email exchange, I asked Harriet some questions about possible medical issues that may relate to some of Donald's school issues. The first questions had to do with some of Donald's speech and language milestones.  Briefly, her responses were as follows:
  • At one year of age, Donald had "tubes" put in both eardrums due to chronic ear infections, which the doctor evidently felt, were affecting his ability to hear at a vital time in his development, with respect to speech and language.
  • Donald went through the normal stages of babbling vowels, then consonants, then mixes of both in syllables, then sequences of nonsense syllables, and said words and/or word-approximations by one year of age. His first word was, "Mama."
  • Before he was two years old, he began to put two words together to make "sentences," like "Mama, up," or "Donald, cookie" or "Daddy, play."
  • Finally, Harriet called the pediatrician just to comfirm, which he did, that at Donald's two year exam, there were no problems with language development. 
  • Currently, Donald has a lot of allergy problems, which the allergist is trying to control, but often he cannot take the best medicine because it makes him sleepy in school - or - another medicine, which helps but makes him hyper-active.
  • When I asked if Donald eats foods and/or drinks fluids that contain a lot of sugar - candy, sweets, sugared cereal, etc. - Harriet answered that she tries to keep the quantity of sweets at a minimum, but she thinks that when Luther and Donald have special days together, most every week-end, they both enjoy some good old fashioned sweets and pop.

    "Back to the Future"
    (Now - just for a moment - flash forward to the present.  I won't do this very often, but I feel the need to show you how the inflexibility of the school professionals, with respect to their insistence on their original diagnosis, and their apparent "need" to label and place Donald into a special education program - was as stunningly rigid as it was suspicious.

    Currently, Harriet has changed allergists, and she also has taken Donald and herself to a nutritionist. Both the allergist and the nutritionist have put Donald on a stricter regimen in terms of limiting sweets, increasing fruits and vegetables and providing a recommended and daily increase of Vitamins D and E in both supplemental and food form. I have the feeling that Harriet made these changes for three reasons: 1. She was adamant about her refusal to give Donald a drug to decrease impulsivity and increase focus, and was committed to trying other and what she considered to be safer ways to decrease these behavioral issues; 2. I agreed with her, and liked the diet and supplemental approach - before considering drugs for an 8 year old!  3. Harriet is smart, dedicated and has developed the sort of confidence that allows a parent to be stalwart under professional pressure, protective and proactive; she researched, she read and she concluded that she was happy with the new regimen after Donald and she had seen both of the new health professionals.

    It's my opinion that all of the above points to the fact that there is not only the possibility of considering alternatives to the diagnoses of language disorder, impulsivity, verbal outbursts, rude and hyper behavior - but also there is the possibility for alternative treatment and teaching plans - none of  which would include or even consider a placement in a special education program and/or drugs.  The school professionals never once offered up any of the above alternatives for consideration and discussion - even though diet for children is on the minds and tongues of a great many Americans these days, and is influencing big changes in families' kitchens and schools' cafeterias, all across this country.  In addition, I would bet that we all have observed in our own children - and if we're educators, we've also observed in most of our mainstream students - periodic episodes of hyperactivity, impulsivity and lack of focus ... and, I daresay that every once in a while, the same has been true of all of us!)

    Back to March of 2009:
    The reviews and clarifying conversations with Harriet helped me to get better-prepared for the upcoming conference with the school professionals. The next thing I needed to do before the meeting was to briefly outline the DELV language test so that I can attempt to explain to the school staff why that test is preferable to the CELF-4 for testing African American children for "language disorders."  I knew I'd need to do that without taking up too much time.  Explanation of the DELV for the staff (and you) will be included when I post the entry describing that meeting - probably after the next post.  

    Most of the next entry will consist of email exchanges and phone conversations between Harriet and me. The info will refer to her dialectal experiences in school, and how those memories influence her reactions to Donald's schooling and the professional staff.  

    Thanks so much for continuing to follow this blog.  Special thanks for your patience when I cannot be perfectly consistent with posting at least once a week; I apologize for  that periodic inconsistency.  Sometimes my "real work" and family obligations have to take precedence! 

    Talk soon.

Chapter 8.  Harriet's Dialectal Memories / Nightmares

Posted June 11, 2010
During a phone conversation with Harriet, as my meeting with the school professionals drew nearer, Harriet became focused on her own past experiences with respect to her dialectal differences.  She was envisioning potentially bad parallels with her experiences for Donald, and was also developing a more profound understanding of what she had gone through, educationally. 

Harriet told me that she hadn't been "called out" for her differences in grammar school, high school or as a university undergraduate. All of her schools had been predominantly African American in terms of the student population and the faculty.  She was a confident student and loved school. That confidence was both fortunate and unfortunate: fortunate, because she never felt embarrassed or humiliated by her speaking style, and was a happy, active, and participatory student; unfortunate, because none of her teachers or professors pointed out the absolute need for standard English, or took the time to discuss, specifically and systematically, what was nonstandard in their students' speaking and writing styles, and then contrast those nonstandard rules with the equivalent standard English rules. Harriet and many of her peers were clueless regarding the importance of being able to switch into standard English for school and testing; they also had no knowledge of how to go about mastering the new rules.   

Everything changed when she became a graduate student pursuing a Masters Degree at a well-known historically black university. The university attracted a somewhat diverse student population and a very diverse faculty.  Her professors teased and embarrased her about her speaking style and gave her much poorer grades for her writing than she had ever received.  The professors randomly corrected her grammar and pronunciation - in front of her classmates - without offering help in any sort of a systematic fashion; they never suggested that she ask another school department or independent clinic to  help her to use oral standard English when she was in class and written standard English on homework assignments. Her classmates modeled the professors' behavior and felt free to ridicule her.

She continued in the following email after our phone conversation:

                                                                       *  *  *

Date:     April, 2009
To:         Mary
From:    Harriet
Subj:     My Moment

Hi Mary,
I (sic) thinking back to high school and college. I had alot of problems dealing with standard English writing, especially summarization. Writing my college master thesis just broke my spirit.  I had to summarize a lot of research papers written by different authors to support my thesis. I always had problems putting the research in my own words. I would need to read the research several times before I could grasp and understanding (sic).  I always had problems trying to remember quotes.

A couple of times, I thought I could have a learning disorder.  My self-esteem was so low - especially because I was attending a good university with smart students all around me and professors with high standards. 

I was thinking, and today, a light clicked on in my head.  I had "a moment." Yes, I had problems.  I was having problems summarizing, processing and understanding the research, maybe because everything I was reading was not in my first language!  And, during the parent/teacher conference, Donald's classroom teacher said, "I would tell Donald what he needed to change in his paper, and by the time he returned to his desk, he would forget."

The same must have happened to me. I had to take the professional exam three times before I passed it to get certification. I remember paying $300 for an exam review. The review was so detailed and I would study, study, study and could not pass.  Then I heard about another review exam course. I paid $400 and flew to the state where they were offering the 1 day course, which included a review book. After taking the course I passed the certification exam. The difference was that the professor focused on the question!  She would break down the question, discuss how the sentence was worded and provide short clues to help with understanding what the question was asking. I believe this help (sic) me enough to passed (sic) the test.  Just "my moment" for finally understanding what happened to me and what is probably happening to Donald.

                                                                        *  *  *

Date:     April, 2009
To          Harriet
From:    Mary
Subj:     Re: My moment

Your epiphany!  Yes - this is exactly what happens to NSE-speaking children when they take the CELF-4 test ... there's not only demonstrable bias on its expressive speech test questions, but also on its receptive language questions, and too many professionals are not aware of this across-the-table impact of dialectal differences.  These differences influence receptive and expressive language. The point is best illustrated by comparing different dialects to different language - not an unfair comparison because the different dialect have different language derivations!  You and Donald were not being systematically taught the translations (contrasts) from one standard rule to the equivalent nonstandard rule, and back, so you were having trouble translating the meaning and/or retaining the meaning of the questions. That's exactly what foreign language students go through (and what I still go through when we're lucky enough to be in Paris and I'm trying my best to converse fluently in French.)

The professor you had for the final review understood all of this, and concentrated more on the question rather than the answer, which she justifiably knew would be easier once the question was parsed and understood. Thank goodness for her!

                                                                        * * *

Date:     April, 2009
To:         Mary
From:    Harriet
Subj:     Re: My moment

Wow!  Everything is beginning to make sense. I also had problems with note taking in college. I could never take good notes, because it was hard for me to put in my own words what the instructor was saying - I guess I couldn't translate it!  I could never write the instructor (sic) exact words, because when I tried, she would be on another paragraph. In some classes taking good notes were (sic) the key to passing the test.

                                                                       *  *  *

Chapter 9.   Still Searching for an SLP 

Posted June 11, 2010
It took over two weeks and three phone calls for the director of the university clinic to get back to me. Once again, the inconsistency of the clinic's staff, regarding what the clinic could and couldn't offer, therapeutically, was glaringly evident. To this day I don't understand it.  The director left a voice mail which was terse and brusque: "We don't do that kind of work," she said - "that work," meaning, helping a nonstandard English-speaking child acquire oral and written standard English. No apology for taking so much time to return the call, no referral, no suggestions, no concern for Donald finding the right SLP - and most disturbing to me - no interest whatsoever in finding out exactly what therapy I  had in mind so that she could consider having her SLP clinical students exposed to what they were bound to confront once they hit the real classroom world!

Otherwise, we were making some good progress finding an SLP - I had spoken to one SLP in private practice, who had spent a lot of time in the local public school district and had worked with many African American children. She had not done bi-dialectal therapy - but, most importantly, she was very interested and willing to do it with Donald. Her fees were acceptable to Harriet and Luther, so I felt optimistic.

I emailed Harriet regarding my conversation with the SLP, and asked Harriet if I could use her name and give out her phone number so the two of them could talk, see if they clicked and make some plans regarding where and when they would start with Donald's lessons.

                                                                       *  *  *  

Date:     April, 2009
To:         Harriet
From:    Mary
Subj:      Re: SLP

This is great!  Is she willing to work with Donald and me?  If working with both of us doesn't seem like a good plan to her, I can continue working with the book and CDs, until Donald is doing well enough for her to include me.

And yes. Use my name - this whole thing is bigger than my family and me - there are so many other people dealing with this who don't know enough to protect their children and their self-esteem. I only wish I had known about all of this when I first started out so I wouldn't have been so withdrawn and afraid of saying something wrong.

Also, I left a voice message and emailed the school counselor about obtaining Alvin's CELF-4 test, again. She did not call back or respond to my email.

                                                                        *  *  *

Date:     April, 2009
To:         Harriet
From:    Mary
Subj:     Re: SLP

Hi Harriet. Just curious - have you spoken with the SLP yet?  If so, what do you think of her?  Talk soon, m  

                                                                        *  *  *

Date:     April, 2009
To:        Mary
From:   Harriet
Subj:     Re: SLP 

Hi Mary
I contacted the SLP this morning and left a message on her voice mail. 

                                                                      *  *  *

Date:     April, 2009
To;        Mary
From:   Harriet
Subj:    Re: SLP

Hi Mary.
Yesterday I talked with the SLP - she was very nice. We talked for at least 30 minutes. She said, did you know that Donald's civil rights were violated? Next Saturday, she would like to meet with me and Alvin before she start (sic) with the sessions. I ask (sic) if the sessions are what you said they would cost, and she said yes. She said that she would call you this week because she wants her own copy of the materials.

I thank you with all my heart.

                                                                        *  *  *

Of course, I was thrilled that it appeared we had found an SLP that everyone seemed to like. I wasn't so sure, however, regarding the SLP's remark about Donald's civil rights having been violated - but I planned on making sure that I had understood Harriet correctly when I asked a while ago on the phone, and she answered that she had signed a release for the CELF-4 screening.  A civil rights violation is a pretty big deal - and it often is caused by a district not going through the proper procedure for testing, which includes making sure that the school receives permission in the form of a signed release - and again, I was pretty sure that Harriet had told me that she had signed a form okaying the screening. 

In preparing for the meeting with the school professionals, the next post will include a description of the DELV - which I hope to describe to everyone who participates in that meeting - and clarifying the facts regarding all that transpired between Harriet and the school before I received her first email. That clarification will also help me to deal a little with the issue of a possible civil rights violation.

Thanks and we'll talk soon,

Chapter 10.  The DELV (Diagnostic Evaluation of Language Variance)

Posted June 10, 2010 
Shortly before my meeting with the school professionals was to take place, I phoned Harriet with some questions. I wanted to make sure I had all the facts straight about everything that had taken place - between Donald and the school and between the school and her - before she emailed me that first time.  One important question had to do with whether or not she had signed a release for the school to screen Donald for a language disorder. 

  *  *  *

Date:     April, 2009
From:    Harriet
To:         Mary
Subj:     Screening

Mary - Yes, I did sign for the screening. I read the letter carefully, although it was very vague. I had to contact the therapist for the results - he never called me. I was not told the date Donald was going to have the test and I wasn't told after he was tested. I was only told that he failed the CELF-4 screening. They said further testing was needed. I told the counselor "no" because I wanted to research and seek advice to make sure I was doing the best thing for Donald.

Oh, we worked on he/she does, doesn't, does not. Donald enjoyed the argument game.

                                                                        *  *  *

In addition to having clarifying phone conversations with Harriet, I wanted to make sure that during the meeting, I gave myself enough time to give a brief description of the DELV language test.  It was important to me to point out to the school professionals the contrast between the DELV's purpose and content and that of the CELF-4 - particularly when testing African American students. My hope was to enlighten and impress them with the advantages that the DELV demonstrates when testing dialectally different children. 

Following is an abbreviated description of the DELV's "what and why" for you: 

The "Diagnostic Evaluation of Langauge Variance" Test  (DELV):
Before You Put Children in a Unique Category, Make Sure They Start Out on Common Ground.
  • This is a unique test, designed only for children who speak English as their first language, be it standard or nonstandard English. It is the only standardized language test (that I know of) that can distinguish between a dialectal difference and a language disorder. It is at its most efficient and effective usage when testing Mainstream American English/Standard English (MAE/SE)-speaking children, African American English (AAE)-speaking children and Appalachian English (AE)-speaking children. 

    The DELV distinguishes between difference and disorder by neutralizing (not testing) nonstandard dialectal rules that contrast with SE/MAE dialectal rules. For example, the DELV - unlike the CELF-4 - would not test usage of any noun or verb s word-endings, like  a plural (6 boys), or a possessive (a boy's dog), or a 3rd person singular present tense verb, which provides "subject-verb agreement" in SE (the boy runs) or a verb contraction (she's funny), because all four of those examples contrast with AAE rules that omit the s word-endings.   Instead, the DELV only tests grammatical constructs that are nonvariable (always present) in the standard MAE/SE dialects as well as in the nonstandard AAE and AE dialects. For example, the DELV tests the use of: a definite article (the); indefinite article (a); passive verb (he was told); wh-question (what is this?).  These are "deep" linguistic constructs which are common to AAE/MAE/AE-speaking children, but which often are troublesome to children who have language delays and language disorders. 

    The DELV offers a Screening version and a Criterion Referenced Diagnostic version, both of which distinguish between: a student, whose dialectal/language variations from standard English are not symptomatic of a language-disorder and therefore, not in need of special education services; a student whose variations from standard English are symptomatic of a final diagnosis of a language-disorder, and therefore, in need of special education services. Descriptions of each of those versions follow below:

    The DELV Screening Test:
Part I. Identifies children who speak a nonstandard dialectal variation of Mainstream American English (MAE/SAE).  The children's responses to the test items result in scores which place them at one of three variation levels: strong variation, some variation, no variation from MAE. 

Part II. Identifies children who are at risk for a language disorder.  The children's responses to the test items result in scores which place them at one of four levels of risk for a language disorder: lowest, low to medium, medium to high, highest. Each level of risk distinguishes between those children who are developing language skills normally and those who have a language disorder, regardless of the dialect they speak.
  • So, a child could have a strong variance from SE and have the lowest risk for language disorder and/or no variance from SE and a medium to high risk for language disorder and/or any combination of the above variances and risk levels.  Therefore, if a child scores in a low risk category for language disorder, there would be no point in following up with the criterion referenced diagnostic version that tests for levels of language disorders.
  •  Age range: Language/Dialectal Variation Status:                        4:00 years - 12:11 years
                       Diagnostic Risk for Language Disorder Status:          4:00 years -  9:11   years
  • Completion time: 15-20 minutes.
  • Administration: Paper and pencil
  • Useful in reducing over-identification and over-inclusion of minority children in special education due to linguistic and cultural differences rather than speech and language disorders.

    The DELV Criterion Referenced Diagnostic Test:

  • Individually administered, comprehensive speech and language test.
  • Distinguishes children who are developing speech and language normally from those who are not, regardless of whether or not they speak a standard or nonstandard English dialect.
  • Test items are specifically designed to neutralize the effect that dialectal variations from MAE may have on a child's test performance and assesses a child's true language abilities.
  • It does all this by applying contemporary linguistic principles to a variety of language categories, including: pragmatics (i.e., can the child ask the right questions?), syntax (i.e., can the child use articles, passive verbs, wh-questions in a correct sequence), semantics (i.e., can a child use the word "every" to make a sentence reflect the correct meaning or can the child learn new words correctly?), and phonology (i.e., can the child pronounce words that contain sounds and sound-combinations that are common to most varieties of English for first language English-speakers).
  • Ages: 4 - 9 years
  • Scores: Criterion Referenced; Domains - Syntax, Pragmatics, Semantics, Phonolog
  • Administration Time: 45 - 50 minutes

    Additional remarks regarding the DELV
    Much of the above info was taken from the Pearson/Psychological Corporation's Fall, 2009 catalog.  The test was published in 2003 after 15 years of research, establishing norms, etc. The DELV was authored by professionals from a variety of educationally-related professions including speech-language pathology, education and child psychology - Harry N. Seymour, Ph.D; Thomas W. Roeper, Ph.D.; and Jill de Villiers, Ph.D. with contributions by Peter A. de Villiers, Ph.D. You can obtain info regarding the test at
    www.psychcorp.com - and there are a few good articles written about the test - just google its formal name or acronym. 

    I had heard about the test from an SLP colleague while it was being normed and written, and was very excited about it. I felt it would be a huge breakthrough in our field. I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Seymour during the test's development, and he was happy that many of us felt it would make a big difference in the lives of so many minority children and their families.  I really felt that this test was going to be very important in our field.

    After the test had been published, and I found  myself in a position of advocacy for Harriet and her husband and son, I began to discover some surprising things about the DELV. In the six years since the DELV had been published, very little was being said about it by my colleagues in the areas of speech-language pathology and education. I wanted to know if professionals liked it - and were using it to enlighten classroom teachers, which, in turn would decrease the numbers of NSE-speaking minority children referred and screened for language disorders - before I started to "talk it up." 

    Consequently, during the search for an SLP for Donald, I began to ask if this school or that SLP or that university clinic used the DELV to distinguish between language disorder and language difference when they felt the need to test a minority child. The result was extremely disheartening: not one school district, SLP,   university department of speech-language pathology and not one speech clinic responded that they were using it.  They all were using the CELF, had been using that test for years and did not feel like replacing it. As a matter of fact, many individuals and institutions with whom I spoke, had never even heard of the DELV.  Consequently, it was becoming increasingly  difficult to find out if the DELV was actually doing what it aimed to do - and because the disproportionate numbers of minority children who were misplaced into special education were increasing - not decreasing - I didn't think the DELV had made the breakthrough I had envisioned.  It's important to emphasize, however, that the failure was not due to the effectiveness of the DELV, but rather to the failure of proper and equitable marketing and advertising.

    After speaking with one of the professionals responsible for developing the DELV, I realized  what was most likely preventing or minimizing its usage. The distributor, the Psychological Corporation (PsychCorp), also has been distributing the various versions of the CELF over many years, and it has been a huge seller for them.

    I'm afraid the authors of the DELV made a big mistake in soliciting PsychCorp to distribute their new test.  And, now I understand why something else had occurred, which really upset me.  In the PsychCorp catalog, which advertises both tests, there is an FAQ section for the DELV.  The last question - and the response - are as follows, and I quote:
    Q: "What do you do with a child who speaks a variation from MAE, but doesn't have a disability"? Good question, right?  But, here's the damaging and tragically incomplete answer!

    A: "Historically, such children would either be misdiagnosed as special needs or ignored. There are very few programs to transition children to MAE language patterns. Any efforts to support these types of programs should do so provided the children are not made to feel that their home English patterns are deficient and inadequate. In fact, the DELV Screening Test can be a useful tool for identifying children for whom MAE is not their dominant language profile. Once identified, efforts can be made throughout  the curriculum to assure that non-MAE language patterns are not obstacles to progress. An important area for such attention would be reading."

    Um - what?  What is an SLP and a teacher supposed to do if a student is not language-disordered, but speaks and writes and reads and tests in a dialectally different manner from MAE/SE? Make "efforts through the curriculum" that the student's dialectal differences are not "obstacles"?!  Really?!  That's the answer?!

    What kind of efforts? What sort of information? This frustratingly inadequate response is exactly what I was referring to in the post that took you step by step down the educational staircase to where change would be the most optimal. When we were "standing" on the SLP and teacher stairs, I said that they weren't the place where change should start - even though inservices and workshops can help a lot.  I went on to say that I had conducted workshops for thousands of creative, empathic and impassioned SLPs and teachers who wanted the best for their nonstandard English-speaking minority students, and tried to find an appropriate linguistic-methodological program whereby they don't have to insult the home language, can give factual linguistically-based reasons why the nonstandard style is legitimate and then go on to systematically teach acquisition of oral and written standard English to their nonstandard English-speaking students.  Too often, however, they are stymied - no inservices, no workshops and no place to find concrete answers ... and here is a quintessential example of a company's wonderful opportunity to give a list of possible programs that potential DELV customers could investigate - and the company passed on that opportunity.

    So, I must have phoned over half a dozen times - to Pearson/PsychCorp regional reps, educational reps, SLP reps - asking if they would add some program names and materials as examples of real life successful ways to "transition" children in school from NSE-usage to SE-usage. Only one SLP rep called me back and sounded very receptive to adding my comments to the catalog's answer - but she never returned my follow-up calls, and to this moment, that info has not been added. Not one other rep answered my repeated calls. And, I suspect that the reason why is that the PsychCorp people felt that the CELF people would not have been happy with PsychCorp giving out info that promotes the usage of the DELV and provides the missing link to its usage - how to connect the testing situation to the classroom implementation in accordance with the DELV screening results.

    It's so frustrating, and it's wrong!  Most of us understand the bottom line - I really do - but when the bottom line like this is an educational line and one that has such a profoundly negative impact on children - it's just wrong.

    Does the DELV do what it is intended to do - namely, distinguish between a child who demonstrates a real language delay and a child who demonstrates a dialectal difference/variance? Click on the following links to read the authors' in-depth statistical reports regarding the Reliability and Validity of the DELV's standardization and subsequent testing process: 

    Meanwhile, my meeting with the professionals was fast approaching, so I left a voice mail asking Harriet if there's anything she wants me not to discuss at the meeting.

    *  *  *

    Date:     April, 2009
    To:         Mary
    From:    Harriet
    Subj:     The meeting

    I can't wait!!!  I know we are in good hands. You have permission to represent my family in what ever way you see fit in the meeting tomorrow.
    Thank you

                                                                   *  *  *

    Thanks so much for keeping up with the blog.

Chapter 11.  My Meeting with the School Professionals

Posted June 24, 2010
The meeting had been scheduled for after school in the late afternoon, and I liked the time because we probably wouldn't be interrupted by student and/or school emergencies.  The principal started the meeting by introducing everyone to me.  It was clear that she was assuming the role of chair, which I found interesting because Harriet had said that the principal was very quiet during most of Harriet and Luther's parent/teacher conference, and it wasn't until the end of that meeting that she made those remarks regarding further testing being the best solution. 

The professionals who were present included the school counselor, the same two SLPs who had attended the parent/teacher conference - the young man who tested Donald on the CELF-4 screening test and his supervisor. I asked the principal when the classroom teacher was expected to arrive, and was extremely disappointed when told that she would not be attending the meeting. As far as I was concerned, in addition to the SLP who tested Donald, the classroom teacher was key to this discussion: she was the one who had made the original referral for Donald to be screened for a language disorder, even though she had placed  him in the highest reading group, and had given him excellent grades in spelling, vocabulary and reading. Her absence meant that I was not going to be able to ask her about that contradiction.  In addition, I had hoped that the information I planned to share with her and the others, regarding dialectal differences, would be of help and guidance to her and her colleagues with respect to Donald, specifically, as well as for future African American and other minority students.  

The principal first called on the counselor to review the school's reasons for wanting Donald tested and placed.  I listened as the counselor recounted staff meetings that had occurred all the way through Donald's second grade year and during this current third grade year. I was surprised that those meetings focused mostly on behavioral issues - and it wasn't until the very end of this part of her presentation that the counselor made one statement about the classroom teacher's very recent concern that Donald has a language disorder and her request for language disorder testing.

The counselor continued her report by stating that the staff's biggest academic concern for Donald was in the area of math. She acknowledged that he was seeing a math tutor on a weekly basis - a fact which of course I had been told by Harriet - and that his math skill was increasing as he became more and more familiar with the school's program. She did not choose to report important background information and possible cause for his difficulties with math, which was that this school's math program was entirely new to him when he transferred in the second grade. This fact, coupled with her later remarks about Donald having "made a lot of progress in math - but still lagged behind his classmates a bit" should have precluded such extreme concern, particularly because Donald's former school had reported that Donald had loved math and had done very well on his math lessons, homework and tests.  In my mind, lagging "a bit" behind classmates in a program that is unfamiliar, does not seem to constitute a need for special education placement.
The counselor's report ended with no further remarks about Donald's language "issues."  It was amazing to me how they were minimizing the language issue,  particularly because Harriet had made it very clear to the principal that the whole point of her asking for a meeting between the staff and me had to do with the CELF-4 screening for a language disorder as well as the staff's pushy and repetitive insistence that further testing needs to occur as soon as possible. Now, for whatever reason that I hoped would soon be explained, nothing much had been mentioned about Donald's language! 

Because of this apparent absence of concern about language, once again, I had a rather ugly thought: the school had recently completed the state testing - so, maybe all of the hullaballoo regarding a language disorder, and the push for more testing, and the goal of  special education placement was just a way to be able to omit Donald from the testable mainstream student body; they were guessing that he would not test well, and that his scores might bring the school's average scores down. (I've mentioned this suspicion in prior posts.) 

I asked the counselor about the staff's apparent change of heart over the importanceof the language issue. Her answer was a bit "off course." She said that when Donald was in second grade, he was not referred for language testing because he was operating at grade level in reading and writing; the major academic concern at that point - again - was focused on math and Donald having to learn a whole new math system. The third grade teacher, however - the teacher who wasn't at this meeting - felt differently about Donald's language skills.  This answer did not satisfy me ... it just didn't give any reason for not talking more - with pertinent examples - about why they wanted to test him.

I knew there would be enough time to bring up the issue of the teacher-referral and the CELF-4 test later in the meeting, and I suspected that the staff's concerns about Donald having behavioral issues tied into both dialectal and cultural issues.  So, I asked if the counselor would cite some details regarding Donald's behavior.  She started by describing Donald as a friendly child with a cute personality.  But, the classroom teachers (neither of whom was there!) listed issues in their respective reports such as: not following directions, not respecting his classmates' social/personal space, and periodically displaying impulsivity - like acting out, rude verbal responses, crying - which appeared to decrease, then increase, then decrease in unpredictable cycles.  

I reported to the staff what Harriet had told me about Donald's chronic  ear infections, allergies, swollen adenoids all of which resulted - and still result - in periodic hearing involvement.  When he was very young - around 12 months - he had tubes inserted in his eardrums to provide a way for fluid build-up to drain; this is not an unusual procedure, because if the fluid builds up enough, it can cause periodic hearing loss.  In my experience, however, that's a pretty young age for tubes, but it appears from reports from the pediatrician and Harriet, that Donald's speech and language milestones at 12 months, 18 months and 2 years were normal and that the tubes were inserted several times.

It's quite likely that his impulsive and/or anti-social (acting out) behavior - particularly in the area of not following directions - might very well be associated with periodic hearing difficulty.  In addition, I  reported that Harriet had made an appointment with Donald's pediatric ENT for another hearing test in order to make some decisions regarding another insertion of tubes, as well as possibly removing chronically swollen adenoids; once again, the expectation was that both procedures would help to increase consistency of adequate hearing.

The principal interjected that she thought this was important classroom information (for the teacher who wasn't at the meeting!) and that she would like it entered into the meeting notes that desk placement in the front of the room, repetition of directions and eye contact with Donald would help - as well as some understanding regarding hyper-responses to classmates.  All of those points were important and I was pleased with her recommendations.  

Then, in an attempt to segue into the dialectal vs. deficeit issue, I "reminded" the staff that the ability to follow directions also is affected by what dialect of English you speak ... if you're not fully acquainted with the mainstream standard English vocabulary, phrasing and vocal intonation, which typically are used in direction-giving during classroom activities and in the standardized testing situation, then, you may very well have some difficulty retaining, understanding and following the directions.
In addition, it's unfortunately very common for teachers and other staff to mistake cultural differences - like what is considered to be a "proper" personal space and an "invasion" of that space -  as being anti social and rude behavior rather than what often is nonexposure to mainstream socio-cultural expectations. This happens to be a major problem in school districts where the dominant culture's practices are different from a minority child's home and neighborhood experiences.  Consequently, research continues to show that there's a large racial disparity of over-identifying culturally different children, particularly African American boys, as "behaviorally disordered."  Similar to over-identifying language disorders in nonstandard English-speaking students, percentages reflect from two to five times the amount of African American children as compared to their white standard English-speaking counterparts - who are placed into special education classrooms for behavioral disorders! 

I'll admit that I expected a facial or verbal response that at the very least would reflect some eye-brow raising - some "ohhhs." But, I definitely didn't get either.  Instead, the staff's expressions reflected distrust, disbelief and cynicism.

Then, I asked if we could start dealing directly with the reason why the staff was pushing for more language testing, and asked the testing SLP to take out Donald's answer sheet from the CELF-4 test in order to share some examples of  the answers that caused Donald's failure.  "Oh, I forgot to bring it - sorry." I couldn't believe it ... the whole purpose of this meeting centered on Donald's "failing" the CELF-4, what to do about it and why his parents refused more testing.  How could we discuss whether or not, in fact, he did fail (which he didn't) if we couldn't collectively analyze specific responses - and how they represented dialectal differences rather than disordered deficeits.  Now,  I was getting  disgusted, and profoundly suspicious.  

Ok, there's no test copy, so let's see if sharing  more linguistic information might help to encourage the staff to develop new and more receptive mindsets about nonstandard English-speaking children. I began to speak about the importance of distinguishing between dialectal differences and language deficeits, adding that SLPs are supposed to be trained to differentiate between the two very different situations. In addition, I pointed out that whether it's because of a lack of training and/or a lack of exposure to nonstandard dialects and their speakers, SLPs are not supposed to test minority or majority children who speak nonstandard Engish.  Rather, they are supposed to find another SLP or another qualified professional, who has had the necessary training and exposure to minority dialects, to do the testing. 

I quoted from ASHA's newly published ethical statement and the older 1983 statement both of which plainly state the above stipulation; I also quoted from this school's own district's statement, which was very similar to ASHA's. Then, I gave a little linguistic and dialectal background regarding Black English, emphasizing that when Donald, for example, omits an s-ending on words for plurals or possessives, or an an ed-ending for regular and simple past tense, or an auxilary connecting verb like "is," he's following the rules of his dialect - which is very different from saying that he's not "age-appropriate," or not operating at "grade level" and therefore, he's "language-delayed" or "language-disordered." The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, but speaking a nonstandard dialect does not ever, per se, reflect disordered language!  I added that my two SLP colleagues at this meeting - one who did the testing, and one who is supervising the tester - should know the above info, and test - or not test - accordingly.  It was definitely an uncomfortable thing to say - and there was an uncomfortable silence that followed.  Then ...

It was at that moment when the supervising SLP spoke up ... She was obviously very angry, and - out of the blue - made an amazing comment that had absolutely no literal or insinuating referrant during this meeting; her comment was totally irrelevant to anything we had discussed thus far - or was it?!

"Well," she said, "we weren't trying to pad the special education classes."  

Yowza! What in the world ... ?!  Nothing had been discussed that even vaguely related to the issue of trying to fill up special ed classes.   

At this point, the fact that she had blurted it out - apparently without thinking - rather than  defending their stance or admitting they had a lot to learn regarding dialectal differences ...  and because this is a rumor among educators and other school professionals, I'm becoming more and more convinced that that's exactly what they were trying to do!  It's an old and new story: new story -  pad the special ed classes because we're losing population and, eventually, that will mean that we could lose our jobs -and, the old story - pad those classes with minority youngsters whose speaking and writing styles are nonstandard and do not mesh with mainstream educational and testing expectations. 

Because it was such a politically and educationally volatile remark, and because I had absolutely no idea what to say, and because there was hushed silence after she said it ... I made no comment. Instead, I asked the testing SLP if - as long as he hadn't brought Donald's response sheet to the meeting -  could he at least recall a couple of items that Donald had failed. Yes, he could - and both of the examples that he gave were beautiful examples of Black English, and I said as much.  Both of the SLPs answered in unison: "But, Donald doesn't speak Black English."

Not true, I stated. Donald speaks a "characteristic" mixture of a variety of Black English and standard English. Both of Donald's parents, his grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles speak a variety of BE/AAEV.  I gave examples of Donald's speech from notes I had taken during phone conversations with him. In addition, I mentioned that if the testing SLP had referred to Appendix-B in the CELF-4 testing manual, he would've seen identical examples, and that meant that he should have written DV (dialectal variation) next to each response and not subtracted 1 or 2 points from each of those items.  I said that I haven't seen Donald's test, yet, but I would make a healthy wager with anyone here that if proper scoring had been administered, Donald - who shouldn't've been tested on the CELF-4 in the first place - would have not failed the screening. In that case, instead of pushing for more testing, you would/should have been looking for a good method and set of materials to help him learn and master use of oral and written standard English for school, for standardized tests and, eventually, for the workplace.

Silence.  Then, somewhat magically - had she studied the response sheet before they "forgot" to bring it? -   the supervising SLP gave an example of an item that demanded sentence repetition, which, she said, would not have been affected by a nonstandard dialect. Donald's failure on this item, she continued, reflected a problem with receptive language as illustrated on one of the auditory-memory-for-sequencing items - and is reason enough to ask for more testing.

No, I answered. That's absolutely not true. (I felt myself getting angrier by the minute and so embarrassed for our profession and much less careful about stating linguistic facts without trying to be so polite - no more sugar-coating). First of all, nonstandard dialectal differences have a huge impact on receptive language - on auditory memory, for example. It's not just an expressive language issue, like in speaking and writing. If the content of the dictated sentence is an item which he's supposed to repeat and the content is different from his dialectal rules, then he'll most likely substitute his rules or his vocabulary for the standard response. Some children will even use a language construct - different from their dialect - that they remember hearing, in the hope that it'll be the right answer - for example, they may add an ing-ending instead of an ed-ending to a verb, knowing that they didn't hear their familiar word-ending, so maybe the ing might be right.  Therefore, with a tester who's unfamiliar with the child's nonstandard rules, these responses will be marked as wrong - not dialectally variant.

And, I couldn't resist adding that if the SLPs had "remembered" to bring the test and Donald's response sheet, I could have explained how many of his responses would be affected by dialectal variances - certainly enough to change his score.

At this point, the meeting was pretty much over, in terms of the staff's "reaction to" - read that as "rejection of" - most of my comments.  But, I had promised myself to acquaint them a little bit with a test that is free of the dialectal bias that the CELF-4 and other tests demonstrate. So, I described the DELV, and  pretty much explained everything that you've already read in the June 9th, 2010 post.  It didn't particularly surprise me that no one had heard of it, but I felt - hoped - that maybe one or two of the staff would eventually take a look at it, particularly the SLPs, who should be using it when testing African American children.

The principal then said that we should come to some conclusions, because it was time to end the meeting.  They talked among themselves for a while, listing some good suggestions, making sure that someone had been assigned to let the classroom teacher know about Donald's seating and other points that we had made. Sadly, none of the suggestions reflected any intention to follow up on the information or methodology regarding nonstandard English-speaking children. They also agreed to ask Harriet to let them know what the results of the ENT appointment were and whether there will be surgery.

And then, it was my turn. I made some remarks regarding my hope that they would call me if they were interested in finding out about how to teach nonstandard English-speakers to master oral and written standard English, as well as suggestions for student-projects that children really love regarding linguistics, language and the history of their own dialects - vocabulary, their names, etc. In addition, if they didn't feel like contacting me, I hoped that they would look for more information or google the web for appropriate materials and methods for teaching nonstandard English-speakers, the DELV and other issues that we had discussed pertaining to Donald and other minority students.

And then, I said that Harriet had asked me to stress that there would be no more in-school testing or alternative placement or in-district therapy. She will find a suitable SLP to work with Donald, she will continue Donald's lessons with the math tutor and she will make sure that any hearing issues are taken care of.

Several days later, I tried to contact my SLP colleagues and left messages on several different occasions; I never received a response from either of them.  C'est la vie.

Again, many thanks for following this blog. Take care, and I'll post again as soon as possible.  Stay well!

Chapter 12.  After the Meeting

Posted July 20, 2010
During and after Luther's and her parent/teacher meeting, Harriet had verbally requested that the school send her a copy of the original question/answer sheet from Donald's CELF-4 screening. We both hoped that she would have a copy of it before my meeting with the staff, but it had not been sent, and I had to depend on the SLPs to give me general examples of the questions and Donald's answers - not the questions/answers from the actual sheet.  Because of the negative tone that permeated the meeting, Harriet put her request for that answer sheet in writing and emailed the school principal.

                                                              *  *  * 

Date:       May, 2009
To:           Principal _________
From:     Harriet T.
Subj:      Donald's CELF-4 Screening Sheet

Hi Principal ________:
As I've asked you before, what is required for me to do in order for you to send us a copy of Donald's original CELF-4 question/answer sheet?  Do I need to come to get it or can you mail or fax it to me?
Harriet T.

                                                            *  *  *  *

A "Summary"?
The principal responded by emailing Harriet that after their meeting with me, the staff and she decided to send a report to Harriet regarding their long-held concerns about Donald's school work, behavior, and  the actions that they had taken over the last two years to try to resolve their concerns.  In addition, they would include a "summary" - not a copy - of Donald's CELF-4 screening questions and answers. There was no explanation as to why the copy of the original sheet was not being sent. 

It seemed to me that the reports regarding the staff's "concerns" should have been ongoing and shared with Harriet throughout the two years that Donald had been attending this school.  Why was it being sent now?  Is it because they feared that I was going to cause legal trouble for the school?  And why, once again, had they refused to send her a copy of the actual CELF-4 test sheet without any explanation?  All of this left us no choice but to conclude that they were also afraid that they would be in trouble for the SLP's omission of notations regarding the dialectal variances that Donald used, as well as the fact that he shouldn't have administered the test in the first place, given his lack of linguistic knowledge regarding Black English, as well as his lack of exposure to and experience with minority cultures and dialects.

If my guesses are correct, it's ironic that they were worried about me ... the person they should have been most concerned about, regarding any potential "trouble," was Harriet!  My goals for getting involved as an advocate for Harriet and her family were plainly stated to them during the meeting: to make sure that Donald did not end up in special education for the wrong reasons; to enlighten the staff regarding unnecessary referrals, incorrect scoring on the unnecessary and misadministered screening test, the unacceptable pressure for more testing and what would have been an eventual misplacement into special education - all because of a lack of knowledge regarding linguistic and cultural differences and the continued use of biased testing.  I never intended - and to this day do not intend - to get any  professionals in trouble. 

Harriet, however, became increasingly angry about the staff's stonewalling and multi-cultural ignorance. The angrier she got, the more repeatedly she vowed on the phone to "do something for "other children and parents who find themselves in the same situation - this is not just about us." 

                                                            *   *   *  

Date:       May, 2009
To:          Mary
From:    Harriet
Subj:     Re: Summary

Mary, I am faxing now. I plan addressing every false statement on the summary. Basically, they have lied on (sic) my son, and quoted statements that I never made. They have discredited Donald. What they said about his math is unbelievable - the school that Donald attended before this one was not using the same math curriculum. He loved math until he arrived at this school because they frustrated him with this new math curriculum and criticized him without offering understanding and guidance.  I am very hurt by this school (sic) actions. Donald (sic) teacher wrote on his math paper that Donald does not understand the problems. I called the principle and asked her why (sic) would a teacher write this on a childs (sic) paper. She said that the teacher wanted to provide you with the information. I said then (sic) why wouldn't she email or call us first.  Then I asked the principal what day I could come over to review Donald's CELF-4 test. She said you (sic) have refused to test Donald why (sic) do you keep revisiting this. I said you (sic) never should have test (sic) Donald and when you did you should have made sure that the speech therapist was competent in dialect difference (sic).

                                                             *   *   *

Date:      May, 2009
To:         Harriet
From:    Mary
Subj:     Re Summary

Harriet - first of all, you are right, they are wrong - but it's important that you stay calm or you'll transfer your anxiety and frustration and anger to Alvin Jr. - plus - it's not good for you to get yourself into such a hyper state - it will keep you from thinking clearly :)

My immediate reactions to some of the items are as follows:
1. They keep announcing a lot of progress in math, in behavior and in other areas ... when a new child makes that much progress, why aren't they commenting that they think he's smart, but in a new situation and just needs time to catch up with both curriculum and the "mainstream" school-culture.
2.  They claim he doesn't speak Black English, but, paradoxically, they have "concerns about his grammar," like: understanding and usage of third person singular verbs, regular past tense verbs, irregular past tense verbs and future tense verbs ... Need I say more on that one?! 
3. They have concerns about him understanding facial gestures as though it weren't possible - and maybe even likely - that this is a cultural issue,not an intellectual one.
4.  They want to do a "complete evaluation of his articulation, fluency and voice"!  Why not just listen to the child - as I did. If they had even a minimal amount of exposure to and experience with African American English Vernacular, they could have discerned that his articulation is excellent and absloutely appropriate for his age and dialect.  They also could have recognized the strong probability that any pausing on his part during speech has to do with his anxiety regarding his recognition of the differences between his dialect  and the other children's mainstream dialect.
5.  A very cursory look at their summary of just a few of Donald's "failed" responses on the CELF-4 (they omitted a lot of them) clearly showed that each one of the probe sentences had the potential for dialectal bias. Of course, without seeing the actual sheet, it's difficult - if not impossible - to make a final determination.  You don't have to see the original, however, to determine that this test's probe sentences are a joke with respect to determining "language disorder" in Black English-speaking children!
6. Actually, this entire "summary" of Donald's responses is also a joke. If they were serious about  really demonstrating to you why Donald "failed" the test, they would have written down the actual probe sentences along with each stimulus word as well as a detailed description of the accompanying pictures, and then given each of Donald's responses - in full - so we could have a decent idea of the probes and how he answered. They didn't do that.

Harriet, it's your right to see the entire test. I suggest you go to the superintendent's office and copy Donald's question/answer sheet - every word, picture, notation, score. I consider what they've done in this "summary" as an outrage.  There are so many statements in the summary that contradict what the staff said to me during our meeting, that if this situation weren't so serious, it would be funny.  In addition, I was surprised at the principal's writing - her statements were confusing and unclear in their meaning.

You know, I'm just disgusted.  It's all so unacceptable ... that this faculty and administration, in 2009, this teacher, principal and yes, my SLP colleagues - I'm embarrassed to say - have absolutely no clue regarding cultural differences and how they impact the social relationships and dialectal differences between people from different ethnic and cultural groups.  These differences can enlighten and enrich when a class is taught and a school is led by a knowledgable and empathic teacher and principal. Or, these differences can cause misunderstandings, fights, (wars!) and - as you so well know - misdiagnosis and mislabeling of children as language and/or behaviorally disordered ... the old story of mistaking difference for deficiency.

Let's talk tomorrow.  We need a plan and we need preparation, more info, and no overt anger, just facts.

I'm going to try to speak with the supervising SLP. That test needs to be removed from Donald's record and if I have to, I'll contact ASHA and ask what to do without using names or places.  Your family should get a written apology from the district and from the SLPs and from ASHA.  I also suggest that we wait until you meet with Donald's new SLP and show her the report that you just faxed to me, and until I have a chance to speak with the supervising SLP.

                                                                *  *  * 

Date:      May, 2009
To:          Mary
From:    Harriet
Subj:     Re: Summary

Yes, Mary, you are right.  I was so angry my head hurt.  My husband poured me a glass of wine! I only drink on special occasions. The fact that they did not mention any details about what was said at their meeting with you lets me know they have something to hide. Wow - what a moment! Even the principal's letter made no sense.  And yes, I'll wait until I've calmed down and speak with our new SLP and let you talk to the other SLP before I do or say anything.

                                                                *  *  *  

Donald's New Private SLP and a Copy of the Original CELF-4 Answer Sheet
Shortly after Harriet received the summary packet, Donald had his first session with his new SLP. Harriet reported that Ms. _______ was very friendly and warm, and both Harriet andDonald liked her a lot. That was a relief to me because it had been very difficult to find a school-experienced SLP who was willing to depart from traditional therapy and engage in a style of therapy in which they had no prior training or experience - namely, lessons that encouraged acquisition of oral and written standard English for a nonstandard English-speaking child.

After Donald's first session, Harriet showed the SLP the summary of Donald's CELF-4 screening and asked if the SLP could go to Donald's school and get a copy of the original sheet so she could see exactly which grammatical structures and pronunciations in standard English the test showed that Donald needed to work on.  The therapist thought that getting the test was a very good idea, but she warned Harriet that to the best of her knowledge, neither she nor Harriet would be allowed to have the original.  She did believe, however, that it was Harriet's right to see the original, and for that reason, she could copy it.

Harriet also asked the SLP if, after the SLP reviewed the test and concluded that it was misadministered, could she and Harriet insist that the test be removed from Donald's cumulative file. The therapist responded that if she felt it was unnecessarily and unfairly administered, yes - it should be removed.

After her second or third session with Donald, the SLP told Harriet that she had made a date with the school and arranged to copy the test sheet. Harriet was elated, as was I. The SLP also asked Harriet if there were any hope of Luther and she coming to a mutually agreeable compromise with the school, at which time Harriet made it very clear to the SLP that she and her family had "had it up to here," and are currently in the process of finding a new school for Donald to attend next fall - one that would have a more knowledgable faculty regarding minority testing and dialects.  Harriet emphasized that she and her husband wanted the SLP to do nothing more than to get the specifics of Donald's answer sheet, review it and if she agreed, help them to make the claim that the test was wrongfully administered and that it should be removed from Donald's file. Harriet explained that she hoped that removal of the test could happen before they officially applied and Donald transferred to a new school.  The SLP said she understood the situation and agreed.

Meanwhile, Donald was very much enjoying his sessions with Ms. ________ and appeared to be making good progress. I even received a lovely email from her thanking me for the opportunity to meet Donald and his family and embark on a style of therapy that was new and exciting for her.

And then the bad stuff happened! It seems that when the therapist told Harriet about the arrangements she had made with the school principal regarding Donald's CELF-4 answer sheet, she failed to mention that she was actually meeting with the same staff members, who had attended both Harriet's and my meetings, in order to discuss all of Donald's issues.  She apparently was holding on to a sincere hope that she could serve as an "ambassador of good will" and encourage a "truce," regardless of what Harriet had said to her.  It also appeared that another reason was that she serviced other schools in Donald's school's district, and was reluctant to get involved in a sticky situation like this one, which could result in her losing their business.

The upshot - the bottom line - is that she didn't do what she told Harriet she was going to do. She had a meeting with interested staff members, she told them what she thought was Harriet's side of the story, and then reported to Harriet that the staff members were all anxious to have another meeting with Harriet and Luther.  Most importantly, however, she did not copy down Donald's original answer sheet so that Harriet could have it.  As a matter of fact, she never even said one word to Harriet about the answer sheet, giving the impression that she didn't even see it! 

Needless to say, Harriet was furious and felt that she had been betrayed. As for me - I was really stunned and didn't know what the heck to think. I found it hard to understand the SLP's side of the story. Harriet told me she was through with the therapist - I asked her if she was sure, in view of the success Donald was experiencing in their sessions.  Harriet was positive and she was adamant. She didn't take Donald to his next scheduled appointment without saying anything to the SLP about canceling, and, to my knowledge, they never saw or talked to each other again.  Yowza ... starting again from square one!

So - what's the next step? Well, I'm on the hunt again for a new SLP for Donald. Harriet called the district superintendent's office and found out that the district "owned the test - not the SLP group that serviced the district and to which the testing SLP belonged."  The office also informed Harriet that they would get the original and, although she could not keep it,  she certainly had the right to view it and copy it - and they made arrangements for her to do just that.  

Shortly thereafter, Harriet faxed me a copy of the original answer sheet - and I'll share that with you, along with the contents of the school's test-summary in the next post.

Once again, apologies for the long time-gap between posts and continued thanks for following them. I hope you're finding this narrative to be edifying and enlightening. Don't forget to write!

Stay well.


Chapter 13.  Analysis of Donald's CELF-4 Answers and Scores 

July 31, 2010
Welcome, and thank you for joining me, again. I hope you'll find the following post interesting and informative. It's long, but if you stick with it to the end, I think you'll find it was worth it!

An Analysis of Donald's CELF-4 Screening Scores
This post will analyze the test's screening items, Donald's responses and the scores that the SLP-examiner gave for those responses. In order to lay some groundwork for the analysis, I'll review some of the most important points that the Columbia University researchers made in their study of the CELF-4, with an emphasis on how the screening items relate to Donald's dialectal variances from standard English in his grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary. I've also included a brief review of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association's (ASHA's) ethical requirements for SLPs who are asked to administer language tests to NSE-speaking minority children. If you want more details regarding the Columbia research study, please refer to this blog's 4/23/2010 post. 

My hope is that the post will succeed in answering the following core questions: 
1.   Should the SLP-examiner have accepted Donald for screening?
2. Once he accepted Donald for screening, should he have used the CELF-4 as the screening instrument?
3.  Once he decided to use the CELF-4, did he refer to Appendix B before or after he administered the test to Donald?
4.  Was the SLP-examiner qualified to administer the CELF-4 exam to Donald, an African American child - or - should the SLP have looked for another SLP, who demonstrated the appropriate qualifications for testing African American children for language-disorders?
5. Even though the CELF-4 has been repeatedly condemned as biased towards dialectally different African American children, were there any results on Donald's test that hinted at a learning problem and warranted further investigation? 
ASHA's ethical statement emphasizes that if the child-examinee is African American, the SLP-examiner must either be an African American, who grew up in an African American English Vernacular (AAEV)/Black English (BE)-speaking home and/or is familiar enough with linguistic concepts and  BE's dialectal characteristics to be able to recognize when an examinee is using a BE nonstandard grammatical rule instead of a standard English (SE) grammatical rule.  If the SLP-examiner is not African American, s/he must have had a course in linguistics, and be familiar enough with the pronunciation and grammar of the AAVE dialect to recognize when a child is using an AAVE rule in an answer.  Last, but no less important, if an SLP-examiner, does not satisfy the above-stated requirements, s/he is obligated to find another SLP - who does satisfy the requirements -  to administer the test. 

Donald's SLP-examiner satisfied none of the above requirements. 

Appendx B of the CELF-4 manual presents a listing of some characteristic Black English rules. This listing, however, is just a sample - it's not nearly complete - and, in fact, it contains descriptive mistakes!  In Donald's case, however, Appendix B would not have been helpful - it was ignored -because the SLP-examiner was so unfamiliar with AAEV, that he didn't know when/if/that he should refer to Appendix B!   Consequently, he  didn't know when/if/that he should implement Appendix B's two following requirements for administering the exam to an African American child:
1.  The examiner must write "DV" (Dialectal Variance) by each nonstandard AAVE rule that the examinee (Donald) uses;
2.  The examiner must not subtract any point(s) from an examinee's DV-responses

Donald's SLP-examiner satisfied neither of the above two requirements. Instead of using the "DV" notation, he merely noted that Donald's response was "wrong" by subtracting one point and circling 0 on the scoring sheet. In other words, the examiner awarded no points to Donald for each "error" rather than awarding one point for each "DV."
Columbia University's Research Study of the CELF-4 was focused on African American children; its conclusion was that this test is too language-biased to give an accurate diagnosis of a language disorder for nonstandard English-speaking minority children, particularly African American children.

The Columbia researchers went on to conclude that the CELF-4 was at its worst when attempting to test syntax (word and sentence meaning through word order), semantics (conceptual meaning of a sentence or word-usage) and morphology (specific word choices: for example, he look or he looks; she bake or she baked).  You will see how this conclusion plays out in my attempt to specifically anazlyze items that Donald "failed."

In addition, the study's authors presented four reasons why this test should never be used with NSE-speaking children as a diagnostic tool; these reasons directly relate to the categorization of items in the screening and testing versions of the CELF-4.  The four reasons are as follows:
1.  CONTENT BIAS is always present: The content of the test items reflects what children learned and did not learn before they started school; both learning-histories have a tremendous impact on children's testing scores; the content bias reflects environmental/cultural differences - not intelligence differences - and is of prime importance with respect to scores.
2.  MAINSTREAM BIAS taints the test. Concepts/vocabulary/literary formats/question-answer formats are all based on mainstream experience and knowledge.
4.  NO ONE DIALECTAL GROUP CAN BE ACCURATELY ASSESSED. Regardless of group percentages that serve as the basis for the formulation of scoring norms, the vast diversity of language/dialectal groups is ignored, rendering those norms as invalid.

With that very strong statement in mind, I suppose I could just stop the analysis here. Why bother, if the test is so biased ... just toss out the results. However, I'd really like you to see first hand - through Donald and his family - how and why the above statements are credible. Donald's scores - almost item by item - are enlightening examples of the Columbia research as well as hundreds of other research studies that have come to the same conclusions regarding most standardized tests and nonstandard English-speaking examinees.
Specific Analysis 
For Donald's age group - 5 years thru 8 years and 11 months - the CELF-4 screening exam is comprised of 28 items; each item is worth 1 point.  In order to pass the screening, Donald would have had to receive a total score of 18 out of the 28 possible points - one point per item.  The SLP-examiner awarded only 12 points, thus, Donald "failed" the test.

After the staff met with me, the school principal sent  Harriet a summary of the CELF-4 screening probes along with some - not all - of Donald's answers.  When I first looked at it, I wondered why the summary was so inconsistent in its description of each test item - sometimes (rarely), it included information about probes and pictures, but more often it only offered minimal descriptions - like just quoting Donald's answer with no information regarding the picture and verbal probes.  

How Do BE Grammar Rules Influence Scores on Standardized Tests like the CELF-4?
After reviewing each summary item, it looked to me like the inconsistency was intentional. The items, from which the SLP had subtracted points, and which  Harriet and I challenged during our respective meetings with the staff, were the very items for which the summary gave only sample  probes, not the actual probes or Donald's responses.  Hmmm ... I had a funny feeling about this. Was the staff having second thoughts about what Harriet and I had said in those two meetings, but just couldn't bring themselves to rethink their conclusions about Donald's "language disorder"? What they sent in the summary was stunningly unprofessional and reflects intellectual intransigency and stubborness ...  

After Harriet finally obtained a copy of Donald's original answer sheet, I was relieved that I could use both documents to analyze Donald's scores for each of the 28 items, but it turned out that I had various and serious problems. In addition to the information, which was omitted from the items that Donald failed in the summary, I also had to work without the benefit of the picture-probes and the specific verbal probes for Donald's final responses. Consequently, whatever information I gleaned from each item was incomplete.   

As incomplete and tentative as it may be, however, I am confident that my analysis of the items, which Donald failed, is legitimate. There are two reasons for this legitimacy: 1. Either the vocabulary word that Donald used in his response - and caused him to fail an item - was dialectally or culturally or familially different from the probe-words and the test's required words; 2. Or, the test-item was clearly dialectally-biased.  

At the very least, the SLP-examiner unjustly failed Donald on 9 items, which should have been marked as DVs, and one could make an excellent case for giving Donald an additional 4 or 5 DVs/points.  The responses that were easily identifiable as Black English rules and/or familial/regional vocabulary/activity-differences, would have been scored as Dialectal Variances (DVs) by a qualified SLP-examiner, with no points subtracted.  These DV responses could be categorized as:
1.    Characteristic BE-grammatical variances;  
2.    Characteristic BE pronunciations that influence grammatical variances;
3.   Culturally and/or regionally and/or familially different vocabulary usages, all of which can influence scores on picture-identification items, conceptual-conclusion items and word/sentence-repetition items. 

Before I list those specific items, let me lay some linguistic groundwork for those of you who have had minimal exposure to linguistics and/or varieties of the African American English Vernacular dialect.

There are many Black English grammar rules which differ from their equivalents in standard English. Many of the rules are derived from a variety of West African languages' grammar rules - just as standard English rules and vocabulary are derived from other languages.  BE/AAVE grammar rules also are derived from the nonstandard English rules of the slave- masters and other "bosses" on the plantations who "modeled" English for the newly-arrived African slaves.  

Dialectal Variance when Expressing Simple/Regular Past Tense
For example, many BE-speakers follow their dialect's rule of  not using the regular past tense "ed" word-endings (including Harriet and Luther - Donald's first language models). This does not mean that BE/AAEV does not communicate the  past. The simple/regular past is not marked on the verb, but it is clearly present within the context of the sentence by a time-determiner word (an adverb), and/or inferred from the context of the preceding sentence.  

For example:
BE - She walk home, yesterday.                     SE - She walked home, yesterday.

BE - How'd Ami get home, yesterday?         SE - How'd Ami get home, yesterday?
BE - She walk home.                                      SE - She walked home.

Dialectal Variance (DV) when Testing/Expressing Morphological Word-Choices: For Example, Using "s" Word-Endings for Third Person Singular Present Tense, Plurality and Possession
In addition, most BE-speakers do not add "s" to the ends of verbs when speaking in the 3rd person singular (he/she/it) present tense. West African languages - like most of the world's languages - are "regularized" in their verb conjugations. This means that the verbs' word-endings for the present tense stay the same, regardless of "person."  Standard English is "irregular"  in that it adds the s-endings for the 3rd person singular present tense verbs.  English does this, because its rules are also derived from other languages - mostly from Latin, German and French - which are irregular in their verb- conjugations. 

So, a translation  from Japanese and various Chinese and African languages into English verb conjugations would be similar, but for our purposes, we'll use Donald's BE dialect:
BE: "Every Tuesday, I/you/we/they and she/he/it (i.e. the dog) walk home with her brother" or "... be walkin' home with her brother."  

SE: "Every Tuesday she/he/it (the dog) walks home with her brother."   
In addition, BE/AAVE-speakers do not mark the ends of nouns with "s" word-endings to show plurality or possession.  Plurality and possession are recognized and understood by other BE-speakers because the plural word (like a number) and the possessive word (like a human owner) are always next to - usually before - the word they're describing:

BE - We have two dog.                                      SE - We have two dogs.
BE - John jacket got dirty.                              SE - John's jacket got dirty. 

The "ed" and "s" word-endings represent just a few of the many characteristic grammatical differences between BE and SE, but it's easy to imagine that just these few rule-differences would cause a dramatic loss of points on standardized test items that are meant to test SE grammar.

How Do BE-Pronunciations Influence Scores on Standardized Tests like the CELF-4?
Most - if not all - African languages have very few words that end in consonants; this is also true of the many Chinese languages, Indo-Asian languages and Japanese languages - which actually comprise most of the world's languages.  Because it's derived from West African languages, it's easy to see why speakers of BE commonly engage in "consonant cluster reduction."  That means that if a word ends in two or more consonants that are clustered - right next to each other -  like (st) in "mist" or "guest" - the BE-speaker reduces the (st) clusters to just one consonant, resulting in "miss" and "guess."  Interestingly, if it's a triple consonant cluster, as in "guests," the BE-speaker will usually reduce the cluster from (sts) to (st) as in "guest" or even (s) as in "guess."

Reminder: We're talking about speech, not text; American-born nonstandard English-speaking children (and most adults) will read, write and test in English the way they were raised to speak English, particularly if they have not been given the systematic opportunity to learn how to switch into SE for speaking, reading, writing and testing. 

So, for example, if the examiner probes for the simple/regular past tense, in order to pass the item, the child would have to say - or sometimes write - "missed" or "guessed."  In oral standard English, the pronunciations of "mist" and "missed" sound exactly alike as do "guest" and "guessed" - they are homophones. Even though there's an "ed" spelling at the ends of these past tense words, the "ed,"  when spoken, should be produced like a (t).  So, again, most BE-speakers would reduce the consonant cluster and speak (or write) "miss" instead of "missed," and "guess" instead of "guessed."

BE - He miss his bus lass Tuesday.       SE - He missed his bus last Tuesday.

In addition, words that need to have s-endings in standard English for 3rd person singular verbs (he pets the cat), and plural nouns (he has 3 pets) and possessives (the pet's play area is a big backyard) are all examples of words that end in consonant clusters, and would most likely be reduced to one consonant - with pet being the BE-speaker's response for all three of the above examples. 

These are just a few of the Black English pronunciations that influence variation from standard English grammar usages. Pronunciation is just one more way BE could negatively influence a score; it is one more reason why each and every educator should be familiar with linguistics, the concept of dialectal differences and how to go about listening for these differences in their students.

How do Cultural/Regional/Familial Vocabulary Differences Influence Scores?
During the parent/teacher conference, the SLP showed Harriet and Luther some of the picture-probes and Donald's responses for a few of the CELF-4 screening items.  So, in order to make sure that I wasn't being biased in Donald's favor and making over-the-top excuses for his vocabulary responses - from which points were taken - I asked Harriet to describe the picture-probes she remembered, and what words/activities she thinks Donald would have used because she and Luther would have modeled them in their daily lives. 

Donald's specific vocabulary on some of the items made both Harriet and me burst out laughing because they were so closely identified with his parents' vocabulary, their customary family life ...  and in terms of his world view, knowledge and experience, his answers - which at first seem inappropriate - made perfect sense.      

For example, in the first section of the exam, one of the items was meant to elicit the irregular past tense. In this instance, the examiner wanted Donald to say, "bought," the standard English irregular past tense of "buy."  As Harriet recalls, the accompanying picture depicted a little boy standing at the concession counter of a movie theatre, pointing at the popcorn machine.  Neither the score sheet or the summary quoted the exact probe, but from some of the summary's sample statements and follow-up questions, and because "bought" was the expected response, we assumed that the probe sentence was something like  "The little boy is buying popcorn ... Here's the popcorn the little boy ... " "ate," Donald said.  When I asked Harriet about it, she laughed and said that either she or dad would have "bought" the popcorn, but Donald (the little boy in the picture) was the one who "ate" it.  Nevertheless, Donald lost the point - even though he used an irregular past tense. :)

Another item probed for the regular/simple past tense "ed" word-ending (discussed above). The accompanying picture, as Harriet remembers it, was of  a student painting or "making" (as Harriet described it) a picture. The verbal probe was something like, "The boy is painting a picture ... Here is the picture the boy ..."  "made," said Donald, using his home-vocabulary - a vocabulary, which did not often include "ed" word endings.  Harriet, in explaining Donald's response, said that whenever Donald brought home pictures (or shop and other art projects), he would say, "Mom! Look what I made"!  So, Donald was using his family's past tense vocabulary, which did not usually include "ed" word- endings.  But, Donald lost the point.

The last grammatical picture-probe that Harriet remembers was a future tense item - which the score sheet represented as will drink/will be drinking.  In order to express future tense, instead of using "will," BE-speakers often use "want," or a variety of "fixing to" -  such as "finna," "fin" or "ah" following a pronoun, as in "Ima go" (I will/want to go) or "He-ah go," or "We finna go." Donald had been reprimanded in the classroom for using the "finna" construct, so when he looked at the picture-probe, which depicted a boy drinking from a water fountain with a girl behind him, and he heard the SLP say, "He is drinking now. Soon, she ...  Donald used "want," and responded ... "want(s) to drink."  (I put the parenthesis around the s-ending because, on the score sheet, it is printed larger than the other letters, and I'm not sure if that means that he used or didn't use the "s"  word-ending. In any event, Donald lost the point for using the word, "want" but should have received a DV.

Specific CELF-4 Test Categories and the Items, which should have been Marked as DVs:
Category 1 - "Grammatical/Morphological Word Choices". 
The items 1 - 7 probe for:
1.     Auxilary Verb + ing (is running)
2.    Third Person Singular (s word-ending)
3.    Regular Plural  (s word-ending)
4.    Possessive   (s word-ending)
5.    Regular Past Tense (ed word-ending)
6.   Irregular Past Tense (as in buy/bought or eat/ate)
7.   Future Tense (using "will")

The SLP-examiner, as we now know, did not notate any DV scores in this category, even though we could easily make the case for all 7 items. All of the items that probed for SE grammatical constructs have BE grammatical constructs that are equivalent.  The only possible exception would be for #6, which probed for the irregular past tense, although that construct is subject to family usage.
Specific examples:
Item #2.  Donald responded, "watch" instead of "sings," omitting the 3rd person singular verb s-ending; characteristic of BE; should have been marked as a DV.

I can't explain why Donald used the word "watch" instead of "sing(s)," for this item, but the summary says that the point was subtracted because he did not use the 3rd p.s. construct. The SLP noted in the summary that "watch" was not relevant to the context of the probe, but the summary was written long after the test was administered, and without knowing the exact verbal-probe and/or seeing the picture-probe, I can't make the assumption that he used such a disconnected word for no reason. 

Because the next item, #3,  tests the plural for "watch." I'm tempted to think that the tester mistakenly read that item without realizing it. Donald failed that one, also, because he omitted the plural "s" word-ending. This item also should have been marked as DV, because omission of plural s word-endings is characteristic of BE usage.
For #5, Donald responded, "made," instead of "painted," as described above; he used the irregular rather than regular/simple past tense, which is a fairly typical adaptation by a BE-speaker, instead of using an "ed" word-ending; he also used the family vocabulary-version instead of the mainstream usage.
For #6, Donald responded, "ate," instead of "bought," as described above; Donald's mom or dad had always "bought" the popcorn, and Donald's contribution to that context is that he only and always "ate" it.  

For #7, Donald responded, "want(s) a drink" instead of (will drink/will be drinking), as described above; BE-speakers often use "want" - or a variation of the dialectally different construct, "finna" - to express future tense. 

I believe Donald should have received either 6 or 7 DVs, therefore, 3 or 4 additional points.  Let's say 6, because of the irregular past tense response being an "iffy" issue. The SLP awarded 3 points.

Category 2. - Vocabulary Concepts: State how Two Words are Alike
The examiner shows a picture of two objects. The examinee explains how the two objects are alike or go together. Once again, I'm without the picture-probes, and neither the summary nor the score sheet lets me in on what the objects are! Donald received points for 4 out of the 6 items.

It appears that Donald failed one item because he said, "Both fish," instead of "Both are fish," omitting an "are" in his response: Eliminating the to-be verb, like "is" or "are,"  is characteristic of BE, and if that were the purpose of the question, the SLP should have designated Donald's response as DV.  The use or omission of "are," had nothing to do with this category, however, and Donald should have scored a point for that item because he correctly stated how the two objects were alike.

The second item that Donald failed in this category, apparently had to do with doctors and hospitals. I have no clue - neither does Harriet - regarding what the picture-probe looked like or what the two objects looked like. Donald's response was "They don't go together."  Harriet explained that  before Donald took this test, he had never been in a hospital; he had only seen his doctors in their offices, which were in office buildings - not hospitals.  Once again, the environmental issue arises - and, as the Columbia research reminds us, environmental differences do not equate with intelligence deficeits.

I'm not greedy - and it's tough to analyze when I don't have all the necessary pieces to the puzzle, so I'll give Donald 5 out of the 6 points; the SLP gave him 4.

So far my score for Donald is 11 points; the SLP has awarded 7 points.

Category 3: "Understanding Concepts and Following Directions." What this category really purports to test is auditory memory for sequencing. I can't accept the conceptual part, because it's too tied into the memory issue. In other words, even if Donald had correctly identified the objects, he would not get a point unless he named all of the objects and put them in the correct order.

I think - from the sparse info on the summary and the answer sheet - that the visual-probes are familiar objects - Fish, Car, Ball, Apple, Shoe, House. They are all in a row on one sheet of paper; each object, however, has several different renditions - so, for example, houses may differ in size or exterior; the balls may differ in purpose (baseball/soccer), color and size.  There were no verbal-probes quoted so I'm just guessing that the examiner says something like, "Point to the picture of the smaller fish and then the larger house." The expectation for how many objects the child must point to gradually increases from one object to four objects; in order to score a point for an item, the child must point to the all the named objects in the exact order as the examiner said them.

So, we have a mainstream explanation of the task, mainstream descriptions of the objects during the test - which may or may not be familiar to Donald - and, we have an examiner who is not allowed to repeat the directions, even though it is a standard teaching tactic to explain directions in at least two or three different ways. In addition, we have vocabulary that may or may not differ from what is familiar to children, with respect to how they are accustomed to describing the objects. That means that while the children may be struggling with the translation of new vocabulary and/or style of the directions, they have to simultaneously remember the order in which the objects are dictated. 

As usual, there were several problems that interfered with a complete and credible analysis: not having the pictures which would allow me to know what the above-labeled objects look like; not knowing how the like-objects differed; not knowing what parts the examiner used to describe the exact objects (the big house/the soccer ball/the small fish) to which Donald was supposed to point; not knowing the exact verbiage used in the final ordered probe.  And those mysteries are just for starters. In fact, all of the four conclusions in the Columbia U.'s research regarding the CELF-4's testing categories are represented in this task.

The SLP-examiner awarded Donald 1 point out of a possible six points. Take your pick - either eliminate all 6 from the final tally, or give Donald all 6.  I think either choice is valid. :)  At this point, I'm not sure what I'm going to do about the scoring, but I do know that this category of items tests neither conceptual thinking nor following directions for NSE-speaking children. If the vocabulary and the directions are not immediately understood, the children have no chance to express their grasp of the concepts being tested, and even less chance to retain the order of the sequence. Their primary need is first, to  focus on translating everything - and by the time they do that - they've either missed the final objects or missed the ordered sequence. 

If you've tried to learn a foreign language, you can easily identify with the problem of translation causing loss of information.  Let's say you can "kind of" speak French - but cannot yet "think in it," meaning you're still spontaneously translating into English as you are engaged in conversation.  By the time you've translated the first part of the French-speaker's sentence, you've totally lost the end of his comment! It's a very common problem, and one that I think is identical to what NSE-speakers often experience.

PLEASE NOTE: This is the category that gave Donald the most trouble, and the one where he scored the least points. Just because so many educational studies have found the CELF-4 dialectally-biased, however, does not mean that we can't use its items in some positive way to help and teach NSE-speakers. I believe that Donald's score was profoundly influenced by the issues I discussed above. I also think that it behooves us, as educators and parents, to investigate all possibilities, particularly issues about which  teachers and parents have expressed concern.  

For example, Donald's teachers noted that he has difficulty "following directions," and this could point to the possibility that he has difficulty with auditory memory for sequencing. Medical history  plays a very important role in figuring out children's educational issues, and having trouble following directions could very well have something to do with Donald's past and periodic hearing problems due to chronic ear infections, and very swollen adenoids (the adenoids were ultimately removed).  If I were his classroom teacher, private SLP, learning counselor and parents, I would pay close attention to this issue. For example, it would be very beneficial for Donald to have lists of written directions that are also being spoken. This makes it possible for him to use his good visual-memory to strengthen his auditory memory.

As a matter of fact, every item in this test could be used to help teachers learn what students need to work on - i.e. grammatical word-endings, memory for sequencing, mainstream vocabulary, etc. That being said, however, it does not mean that the CELF-4 should be used as a valid test for diagnosing language disorders in NSE-speaking children!

So far, my score for Donald is either 18 (if I award all DVs for this category) or 12 (if I toss out this category); the SLP-examiner's score is 8.

Category 4 - Auditory Memory for Sequencing Words in Sentences. This is the final category.  There are 9 sentences that increase in the number of words that they contain, from 6 words in the first sentence to 13 words in the 9th sentence.  The SLP-examiner gave Donald one point for each of the first four sentence-repetitions and 0 points for the next five sentences. 

This category is identical to the preceding three categories with respect to its cultural/familial language bias. What's most at issue here is specific word choice (morphological choices and vocabulary) and whether or not Donald expressed conceptual understanding of the sentences, even though he may have used different vocabulary when repeating the sentences.  What's interesting is that, unlike the preceding category, Donald remembered most of the sentences - he just translated them into his vocabulary and grammar :)
For example:
#5. The small brown rabbit ate all of the farmer's lettuce.  Donald omitted "brown."  Conceptual grasp is present, including the possessive "s" word-ending; retention of all 10 words did not happen, and Donald certainly knows "brown." So, I don't think a DV is warranted, and Donald received no point.

#6. The boy was not driven to the school by his father.  Donald used "by" as in, "by the school," instead of "to" in the phrase "to the school."  Many BE-speaking families - and families who speak styles of English that are predominantly standard  - use the word, "by," to represent not just "driving by" a house, but stopping and going in to visit - as in "I went by Melissa's house and stayed for about an hour."   Donald also substituted "the father" for "his father."  At least one DV should have been notated, but Donald received a 0.

#7.  The flowers and bushes were planted by the gardeners.  Donald inserted "the" before "bushes," and used the BE rule of regularized conjugation by using "was," instead of "were."   He also demonstrated his awareness of the "ed" word-ending on "planted," but because "ed" endings are not usually used in BE, he wasn't familiar with variation of "plant" so he compensated with an "ing" ending - with which he's very familiar - and that resulted in "planting by the gardeners."  Substituting "ing" for "ed" in testing situations is common among African American students. Two DVs should have been notated - nevertheless - he didn't receive a point. 

#8. The student who played the drums in the band was very proud.  Donald used all 12 words in his repetition effort, but because he substituted "that" for "who," he received a 0.  This one's a little iffy, but in nonstandard English-speaking African American and other minority families - the word choice, "that," in the sentence's phrase, would be used 99% of the time instead of "who." My inclincation would have been to notate a DV, but the SLP-examiner gave Donald a 0. 

#9.  The children washed and dried the dishes and stored them in the cabinet.  Donald substituted "kids" for "children"; then, he substituted "cleared" for "washed and dried," then he substituted "put" for "stored," then, he substituted "storage" for "the cabinet." 

So, Donald's sentence was, "The kids cleared the dishes and put them in storage."  Harriet reports that she and Luther use "kids" much more than "children."  In addition, Donald has never been allowed to wash or dry the dishes - he usually is the one to clear the table. Finally, Harriet reports that they never use the word "store" to mean "put away," and  they do use the word, "storage" to mean,  "cabinet." 
What these vocabulary differences mean in a testing category like this one is that while Donald is translating the relatively unfamiliar words, he's also trying to grasp the concept and repeat the sentence - the result is that his vocabulary, his experience and his translation undermine his response.  Several vocabulary DVs are due, but, Donald received a 0.

I would add DVs for four out of the five items for which he received no points. That should give him a total of 8 out of 9 points for this category compared to the SLP's award of 4 points.

Adding the items that Donald passed, plus the DV items, his final score from me would have been either 20 or 26 out of 28 - both are passing scores - as compared to the SLP's final tally of 12 out of 28.

Please Note: The score that included the points for DVs is not necessarily the score that Donald would have received on an unbiased language test. It does mean, however, that because so many DVs were noted, the CELF-4 test should never be considered as a valid way to diagnose a language disorder in a nonstandard English-speaking African American child.

We'll probably never know what Donald would have scored if the SLP had administered the dialectally unbiased DELV test (see the June 9, 2010 post for descriptions and details).   The important point is that the CELF-4 should not have been administered in the first place, and even if it were the only "game in town," it definitely should not have been administered by the SLP who tested Donald.  Over-kill? Yes!  But that's the last time I'll write it!
I'd love to hear from you regarding this post. Thanks for reading the whole thing!  Have a wonderful end-of-the-summer and I hope to join you again, soon.