What does the Recalling Sentences subtest tell us?

We recently had a question from one of our SLP-Impact members about the Recalling Sentences Subtest on the CELF-5 that I wanted to share.  Our member wrote,

I have always hated the recalling sentences sub-test of the CELF-5. I have always believed that is much more of a memory test than anything else. What are your thoughts on this sub-test? I have a student who bombed this part and achieved a 1st percentile on it affecting her overall language score and expressive score. How would I do dynamic assessment on this sub-test and would you use the same items from the test, or other items? If you would use other items, how would you make your selection?

A memory component in Recalling Sentences

You are certainly right that there is a memory component in the Recalling Sentences task, and if a student struggles with short-term memory, they will perform poorly. There are also many other reasons a student might perform poorly, and their responses will help you identify those reasons.

If a student does a great job of repeating the shorter sentences at the beginning of the test, and then absolutely bombs the longer sentences (e.g. can’t repeat any of what you said), then you might be looking at the impact of memory. Sentence Repetition Orange Speech Bubbles

The answer is in the errors of the Recalling Sentences subtest

If a student repeats sentences back with altered verb forms, it might be that they do not have a strong underlying construct for the verb form that was used in the sentence. I see this a lot when on the CELF-4-Spanish recalling sentences subtest when we get to sentences that use the Pluperfect Subjunctive (e.g. would have studied). Students who do not have a strong underlying Pluperfect Subjunctive form (most students), use a simpler form. If we see a student struggling with subordinate clauses, that gives us great information. If we see them omit prepositional phrases, that also gives us great information. Rather than just paying attention to the scoring on these items, if we focus on the errors, we’ll have great information.

How do you do Dynamic Assessment when a student bombs the Recalling Sentences subtest?

Well, let’s start with our Intentionality piece: “The next task we are going to do is to repeat sentences. We’re doing this to see if you know the words and forms I am using in my sentences. I want you to listen carefully and repeat back all of the words I say as best you can. If you can’t repeat it back exactly as I say it, do the very best you can to tell me as much of the sentence as possible.” (You can download our Dynamic Assessment Protocol from the Bilinguistics Resource library).

In selecting the sentences I would start with short, simple sentences and then gradually make them more complex. This will give you a good sense of where the break down is. Is it related to length or complexity of the forms/vocabulary in the sentence. You could use some of the same sentences combined with some new ones that you make up. I would try to match them to the complexity of the sentences on the test but change out the nouns and verbs. If your student is struggling, try breaking the sentence into two parts and see if that helps. If they use synonyms for nouns in the sentence, it tells you that they know what you are talking about but that they use a different word.

Go beyond the score

You can really get some great information about language skills from the subtest. Maybe the score doesn’t tell you all you need to know but the changes the students makes can really enlighten you as to where their breakdown is.

For an article that goes into great depth about research on sentence repetition, check out:

Klem, M., Melby‐Lervåg, M., Hagtvet, B., Lyster, S. A. H., Gustafsson, J. E., & Hulme, C. (2015). Sentence repetition is a measure of children’s language skills rather than working memory limitations. Developmental Science, 18(1), 146-154.

Written by: Ellen Kester

14 Comments on “What does the Recalling Sentences subtest tell us?”

  1. January 18, 2019 at 8:54 am #

    I live in Phoenix Arizona, where many children grow up in Spanish-speaking homes, but learning to speak Spanish is often not prioritized. Parents want their kids to speak it, but possibly because of the stigma attached to it due to our laws, the reality is that they don’t speak it as well as the children I have seen in other states. I have many children that are unable to repeat the sentences on the recalling sentences subtest, but they are often able to translate it to English. They often do this without me asking them to do so. In a way they seem to think they are repeating the sentence. This is so interesting to me, and though I can’t give them points I can prove in my justification that they have the underlying linguistic knowledge. Though they translate the sentences to English, their English CELF-5 scores on this subtest are still in the very low range, as they are technically still learning English, and often from odd sources such as peers and television. My intuition tells me that these children are able to learn language in quite an odd language environment and that this must mean they are a normal language learner using what they have to grasp at any linguistic knowledge they can. Diagnosing in this case is really tough! Any one else with this situation?

    • January 21, 2019 at 2:11 pm #

      This is very interesting. It is eye opening how much legislative decisions can impact language acquisition.

      I know Laida Restrepo has looked at performance on the CELF by bilingual children in Arizona. Check out her work if you haven’t already.

  2. January 18, 2019 at 9:28 am #

    Thank you for this question, response and the journal article reference. This helped clarify this matter for me, of the usefulness of sentence repetition tasks for language evaluation, which had been a question in my mind. I think your response means that we SLPs should be careful not to translate a low score on a sentence repetition subtest to writing a goal for sentence repetition. I think when a student is weak in a certain grammatical constructs, such as past tense, the goal would be for use of past tense. Sentence repetition might come into play during a therapy session as a teaching technique which we would call “modeling” the correct production of the target. But sentence repetition in and of itself is not a target.

    • January 21, 2019 at 2:06 pm #

      Absolutely. We want our goals to be functional so we wouldn’t select sentence repetition as a goal. Rather, we would identify deficits in their repeated sentences to target.

      • January 29, 2019 at 2:07 pm #

        I just now got a new student whose IEP has the following goal. “Student will engage in active listening by facing the speaker and recalling sentences of increasing length.” This student is working on eye contact, and also syntax — she tends to omit helping verbs in her sentences. But I think she would be better served with separate goals for eye contact in functional situations (greeting, listening to directions etc.) and syntax when describing pictures.

      • January 29, 2019 at 2:37 pm #

        Yep, I completely agree with you! In terms of measurability, the goal you were handed sounds pretty tough! I like that you picked more functional goals. You might even include a syntax goals for describing what the has done throughout the day to get those helping verbs or auxiliary verbs working.

  3. January 18, 2019 at 11:58 am #

    Great information. Thank you.

  4. January 21, 2019 at 6:25 am #

    Thank you for these useful tips as to what to do practically with the info that the recalling sentences element shows us. I am an Assistant so I don’t conduct the tests but have often felt that the memory is that main thing we are testing on that part – and that many of us without any DLD would perform poorly on it because we simply cannot remember that many details!

    • January 21, 2019 at 2:03 pm #

      Glad you found it helpful!

  5. January 23, 2019 at 12:43 am #

    I’ve always felt that the Recalling Sentences subtest yielded a lot of information about the testee. Unfortunately, it takes precious time, a commodity in short supply for many SLPs, to examine responses thoughtfully. So, whenever possible, I request to see the test booklet as well as the final assessment report when reviewing outside assessments.

    • January 23, 2019 at 5:27 am #

      Thanks for your comment, Helen. You are so right that time is a commodity in short supply for SLPs. Let’s use it wisely and keep only the right students on our caseloads. I love your suggestion to request the test booklet along with the final assessment to evaluate the details before we make decisions about services.

  6. January 19, 2023 at 4:51 pm #

    Thanks for the practical advice of looking at the errors, nor just at the scores, and focusing on the functional information we can get and use in developing functional goals!

    I came across a study that concluded there’s a significant difference in how people perform on sentence recall tests depending on whether it’s their L1 or L2, regardless of their language ability on other measures. They observed that sentence recall may be a measure that underestimates L2 abilities. If that is the case, then a granular look at the content of the responses would be especially useful with bi- or multi-lingual students!

    Does verbatim sentence recall underestimate the language competence of near-native speakers? (2015)

    • January 20, 2023 at 9:49 am #

      I would totally agree with that study just based on processing speed alone. My Spanish is pretty proficient but I wonder what my accuracy would be if I did a sentence recall test on myself in English and Spanish! (?) That being said, I really like that portion of the CELF. It tells me a lot about attention, auditory abilities, things like that. Plus, it’s my experience that a child can do less well on that one section and still do alright if their other core language scores are average. Like the study alludes to; questionable if tested in isolation but informative nonetheless. Thanks for your deep thinking on this.

      • January 20, 2023 at 10:03 am #

        Thanks for your comments. Definitely true that it is but one piece of the assessment puzzle!

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