With the incredibly diverse populations we work with, it’s important we have a toolkit full of ways to help us differentiate language differences from language disorders. Non-word repetition tasks have been found to be good tools. Children with language impairment have significantly lower performance on non-word repetition tasks than their peers with typical development.
Non-word Repetition Tasks Tap Into Skills Underlying Word Learning
Think of all of the skills that are required to listen to a word (or non-word) and repeat it back. We have to perceive the set of sounds, encode them, remember them, assemble the sounds for production, and articulate them. These are all skills that we use to learn words. If our ability to perform any one of those skills is impaired, we will not perform well on non-word repetition tasks.
Non-word Repetition Tasks Reduce Bias
The use of non-words reduces bias related to life experiences, socialization practices, and literacy skills. These types of tasks do not rely on prior experiences to the extent that many formal and informal assessment tasks do.
Non-word Repetition Tasks Have Been Found to Be Effective Across Many Languages
The use of non-word repetition tasks have been found to be effective with children who speak English, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, French, and Mandarin (Paradis, Schnieder& Sorenson, 2013; Dispaldro, Leonard, and Deevy, 2013; Dollaghan & Campbell, 1998; Stokes, Wong, Fletcher & Leonard, 2006).
Be Mindful of Phonotactic Constraints
Someone recently asked me about using the CTOPP Non-Word Repetition Task with a child whose native language is Spanish. They reasoned that if the words are non-words, what difference does it make. I explored the CTOPP-2, published by PRO-ED, which has a non-word repetition task. The manual doesn’t state the language(s) spoken by the individuals in the standardization sample, so I will assume it was normed on monolingual English speakers. When I went through the word list I found that all of the non-words conform to the phonotactic constraints of English. This isn’t the case for Spanish, however.
Take a look at the first 10 words. Every single one of them includes either a sound that does not exist in Spanish, a sound in a word position it cannot be in in Spanish, or a sound combination that does not exist in Spanish. I’ve marked those in red.
Think about the impact of that on a Spanish speaker. What if you were asked to repeat a list of non-words that conformed to the phonotactic constraints of German or Hebrew. Do you think it would be harder for you than a list of nonword that conformed to English phonotactic constraints? You bet. So the same rules hold for standardized tools for non-word repetition tasks that hold for standardized tools in general. If you use them with individuals who are not represented in the standardization sample, you can throw the scores out of the window.
You can certainly design non-word repetition tasks that are appropriate for your students who speak a language other than English as their native tongue. Use the phonotactics section in each chapter of the Difference or Disorder book to guide you.