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The past decade has seen an increasing focus on finding objective ways to evaluate all facets of speech and language development. This renewed interest has been, in part, a response to a 2005 position statement by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), which outlines requirements for speech-language pathologists to provide comprehensive assessment, intervention, and support to address the components within the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health framework (Gerhardstein Nader & White, 2013). Mandates from national organizations such as ASHA, requirements from Common Core State Standards, increasing awareness and advocacy on the part of families, and new research studies all point to the need for valid, reliable, research-based tools to support language assessment. Advances in technology are also changing the face of assessment, providing new platforms and new ways to evaluate clients.

Whether you are speech pathologist assessing vocabulary in students and measuring response to intervention or a school psychologist identifying students with reading and writing disabilities, you need tools that help you help your students. If you are a neuropsychologist working with adults who have language impairment as a result of traumatic brain injury or stroke, you need ways to assess language that are appropriate to your clients and that make it easy for them to demonstrate their language abilities.

Important considerations for choosing a vocabulary assessment

Ecological Validity. When evaluating assessments for developing language learners or those with language deficits, one of the most important factors is ecological validity. “As speech-language pathologists, we are challenged to provide static and dynamic assessment procedures with tools and materials that are ecologically valid,” explain speech and language expert Pamela White and clinical psychologist Rebecca Gerhardstein Nader in a recent article on vocabulary assessment. “Ecologically valid assessments are those that are sensitive to the individual’s chronological and developmental ages; medical status; physical and sensory abilities; education; occupation; cognitive level; and cultural, socioeconomic and linguistic backgrounds.”

Iconicity. Another important factor in language assessment is iconicity. Fuller and Lloyd (1991) describe iconicity as the continuum of understanding the connection between symbols and their referents. In testing, this is important because symbols (i.e., pictures) are used as stimuli to prompt an examinee to respond. Fuller and Lloyd describe three levels of iconicity: transparent (symbols that closely visually resemble their referent); translucent (symbols in the middle of the continuum); and opaque (symbols that have a more distant and less obvious relationship to their referent). The more transparent the stimuli, the easier it is for clients to recognize and respond. Working with moderate to severely disabled clients, Mirenda and Locke (1989) found that color photographs were second only to the actual object in terms of ease of recognition when compared among 11 different kinds of stimuli, including line drawings.

Resources to share

There are many excellent resources for speech-language professionals, psychologists, school personnel, families, and others who work with children and adults with language issues.

  • For professionals, the ASHA Web site provides information on all aspects of speech-language pathology. The site includes a huge variety of resources on topics such as language learning, education, and assessment; communication and fluency disorders; neurophysiology and neurogenic language disorders; autism; TBI and stroke; and much more.
  • The Community for Accredited Online Schools has developed the Supporting Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students: Tools, Technology and Key Resources to Cultivate Academic Success Web site, which provides information about technology tools, scholarships, and more.
  • For educators and parents, LD is an excellent source of information about language-based learning disabilities. The site features hundreds of articles, active forums, and a comprehensive LD resource guide.
  • For parents and families seeking information about language and speech delays, a good choice is the “A Place of Our Own” Web site. This site includes information about language development as well as informative videos and activities that parents can do with their children.
  • For anyone interested in helping children develop their vocabulary, Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (2nd Ed., 2013) is a practical guide to help K-12 students get involved in noticing, understanding, and using new words.
  • For those interested in becoming a speech/language professional, the Careers for Raising the Literary Rate Web site provides information about which populations need literacy help the most and offers resources for becoming a literacy professional.

Assessment resources

The new Vocabulary Assessment Scales–Expressive (VAS-E) and Vocabulary Assessment Scales–Receptive (VAS-R) present highly realistic, full-color digital photographs to measure the breadth of an individual’s vocabulary and oral language development. In terms of iconicity, using photographs instead of drawings improves the likelihood that examinees can discern the stimuli and demonstrate what they know. VAS stimulus books are available in both digital (for use on an iPad) and traditional printed form. When both the VAS-E and VAS-R are administered, examiners can calculate a Vocabulary Composite Score as well as an Expressive-Receptive Discrepancy Score, providing additional data for interpreting an individual’s performance. Reliable change scores allow you to monitor the effectiveness of interventions over time. Offering both age- and grade-based norms, the VAS-E and VAS-R are suitable for evaluating clients ages 2.5 to 95 years in clinical, school, neuropsychological, and occupational settings. A short video interview with VAS author Rebecca Gerhardstein Nader is now available; click on the link to watch the video and learn more.

Note: On March 25, 2014, PAR will be offering a free Webinar, “Introduction to the Vocabulary Assessment Scales (VAS),” which highlights the features and benefits of the VAS and includes discussion about its development, administration, and scoring. Although the Webinar is free, space is limited, so register now.

The Test of Irregular Word Reading Efficiency™ (TIWRE™) is a rapid assessment of reading comprehension through the use of phonetically irregular words. Because phonetically irregular words cannot be pronounced correctly unless they are already a part of the reader’s vocabulary, they are especially useful for measuring reading comprehension. Suitable for ages 3 to 95 years; the TIWRE takes about two minutes to administer.

The Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing–Second Edition (CTOPP-2) assesses phonological awareness, phonological memory, and rapid naming. The CTOPP has been used in many studies of reading and phonological processing in both typical and clinical populations. The second edition features an expanded age range (4 to 24 years); floor and ceiling effects were eliminated with the addition of both easier and more difficult items. A new phonological awareness subtest (Phoneme Isolation) and rapid naming tasks for the youngest examinees were also added.

The Gray Oral Reading Tests–Fifth Edition (GORT-5) is one of the most widely used measures of oral reading fluency and comprehension in the U.S. The Fifth Edition includes a number of updates and improvements. Two equivalent forms (Form A and Form B) each contain 16 developmentally sequenced reading passages with five comprehension questions each. An optional miscue analysis system allows reading specialists to analyze reading errors and tailor interventions to specific students’ needs.
Designed to be used by speech-language pathologists, audiologists, school psychologists, and other testing professionals, the Test of Auditory Processing Skills (TAPS-3) measures what a child or adolescent does with what he or she hears. Results can help diagnose auditory processing difficulties, imperceptions of auditory modality, language problems, and/or learning disabilities in both children and teens.

The Test of Word Reading Efficiency–Second Edition (TOWRE-2) measures an individual’s ability to pronounce printed words (i.e., sight word efficiency) and phonemically regular nonwords (i.e., phonemic decoding efficiency), skills that are critical in the development of overall reading ability. Four alternate and equivalent forms of each subtest are available, making the test ideal for monitoring progress and evaluating the impact of instructional interventions.



American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). (2005). Roles of speech-language pathologists in the identification, diagnosis, and treatment of individuals with cognitive-communication disorders: Position statement. Rockville, MD: Author. Retrieved from

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (2nd Ed.). New York: Guilford.

Gerhardstein Nader, R. and White, P. (2013). Vocabulary assessment. Advance Healthcare Network Newsletter, Speech & Hearing feature, April 17. Retrieved from

Fuller, D.R. & Lloyd, L.L. (1991). Towards common usage of iconicity terminology. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 7, 215-220.

Mirenda, P. & Locke, P.A. (1989). A comparison of symbol transparency in nonspeaking persons with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 54, 131-140.