Do we use language proficiency testing to determine which language we should use for speech-language testing?

NOOOOOOOOO!language proficiency testing

Did I say that loudly enough?

This is a question we hear a lot.

“How do I determine the language of dominance so I know which language to use when testing my student?”

The purpose of language proficiency testing is NOT to determine the language to be used for a speech-language evaluation.

Let’s take a look at some of the history related to language proficiency tests.

There was a surge in language proficiency testing (and the development of language proficiency tests) in the early 2000s. The surge resulted from the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which required that English proficiency be assessed and that ELL students participate in a standards-based English language testing program. This increased the need for valid and fair assessments for ELLs (Stephenson, et al., 2003). A number of guidelines and resource guides were created to help educators through these changes. Gottlieb and colleagues (2007) created a resource guide to understanding English language proficiency standards. Pitoniak and colleagues (2009) published a set of guidelines for the assessment of English language learners.


Diving into these guides as well as other research on language proficiency testing, we came up with:

The Top 10 Purposes of Language Proficiency Tests

language proficiency testing
  1. To make determinations about when ESL support is no longer needed (Aldrich, 2011)
  2. Evaluate English language proficiency in school-aged children (Esquinca, Yaden, & Rueda, 2005)
  3. Measure cognitive-academic language proficiencies (The Woodcock Muñoz Language Survey, Woodcock et al., 2017)
  4. Assist in the initial identification, designation, and redesignation of a student as being non-English Speaking, Limited English speaking or Fluent English Speaking. (IDEA Proficiency Test)
  5. Measure those English and language skills necessary for functioning in mainstream academic environments (from The Language Proficiency Test, reported by Esquinca et al., 2005)
  6. Make classroom placement decisions for ELLs (Gottlieb et al., 2007)
  7. Aid in the identification of ELLs (Gottlieb et al., 2007)
  8. Optimize classroom instruction for English language learners (Stephenson et al., 2003)
  9. Assess students’ general acquisition of English (Stephenson et al., 2003)
  10. Evaluate progress in attaining English language proficiency (Pitoniak, et al., 2009)

Why we don’t use  language proficiency testing for this purpose

Not a single source listed as its purpose determining language of testing. Now let’s talk about why we don’t use proficiency tests for this purpose.

When we test a bilingual student to determine whether or not they have a speech and/or language impairment, we need to evaluate both languages. We know that children who are raised in bilingual environments typically spend part of their day in one language and another part of their day in another language. Often they use one language at home and another language at school. They don’t talk about the same things in both languages. And, you guessed it, they don’t learn the same things in each language. So we really need to look at both languages to see all that they know.

language proficiency testing

Let’s add on top of that the fact that different languages have different structures. For example, Spanish and German have gender systems and require agreement between articles and nouns. English does not have such a system. For more details than you could every want on this, order a copy of our Difference or Disorder book. Let’s just sum it up by saying that we need to look at both languages to have a solid understanding of our students’ skills with linguistic structures and content.


  • Aldrich, S. (2011). RTI for English Language Learners. Port Chester, NY: Dude.
  • Esquinca, A., Yaden, D., & Rueda, R. (2005). Current language proficiency tests and their implications for preschool English language learners. In Proceedings of the 4th international symposium on bilingualism (pp. 674-680). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
  • Gottlieb, M., Cranley, M. E., & Cammilleri, A. (2007). Understanding the WIDA English language proficiency standards: A resource guide. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.
  • IDEA Language Proficiency Tests (IPT), 1991. Brea, Callifornia: Ballard & Tighe.
  • Pitoniak, M. J., Young, J. W., Martiniello, M., King, T. C., Buteux, A., & Ginsburgh, M. (2009). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.
  • Stephenson, A., Johnson, D. F., Jorgensen, M. A., & Young, M. J. (2003, November). Assessing English language proficiency: Using valid results to optimize instruction. In 81st Annual Meeting of the California Educational Research Association (CERA), Santa Barbara, California.
  • Woodcock, R., Alvarado, C. G., Ruef, M. L., Schrank, F. A. (2017). The Woodcock-Muñoz Language Survey III. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
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