Sunday, January 23, 2011

Assessing Non-verbal Children

For the past five years or so, I have been trying to come up with a way to formally test the reading level of my non-verbal students.  How do you get a reading level for a child who can't speak?  How do you prove they can read?  How do you know if they know they sounds the letters make when they can't say the sounds themselves.  With the help of a grant from the Ontario Government's TLLP (Teacher Learning and Leadership Program) we (my EA's and myself) were able to conduct some research in the topic. 

Our first thoughts when coming up with this project idea was to adapt a test that was already in existence.  We had thought of the DIBELS (my American friends know this test better than me) because it is free to print off from the internet. The initial sound fluency test would be easy to do with a student who is non-verbal because they would only have to point or eye gaze to the correct answer. We also thought about adapting it for our switch users on the computer using Clicker 5.

When we took a hard look at the test we realized that it might not be as useful as we first thought. All the tests in the DIBELS have a timed component for it to be standardized. Because we would be using an alternative access method we would not want to have a time limit impossed (because a lot of our special needs students need longer testing time) and therefore would the test be valid?

Here were our thoughts on each of the tests:

Measures of Phonological Awareness:

Initial Sounds Fluency (ISF): Assesses a child's skill at identifying and producing the initial sound of a given word.

The first part of this test would be easy to administer to our non-verbal students. (eg. Which picture starts with /C/?) They could point or eye gaze to the answer. The second part requires them to state which sound a picture starts with. (eg. What does "pillow" start with?) We would have to provide our students with choices (eg "p", "c", "d" "f" on cards) and allow them to point / eye gaze to the correct answer.

Phonemic Segmentation Fluency (PSF): Assesses a child's skill at producing the individual sounds within a given word.

As our students are non-verbal, they could not do this part of the test.

Measure of Alphabetic Principle and Phonics:

Nonsense Word Fluency (NWF): Assesses a child's knowledge of letter-sound correspondences as well their ability to blend letters together to form unfamiliar "nonsense" (e.g., ut, fik, lig, etc.) words.

Oral Reading Fluency (ORF): 

As our students are non-verbal, they could not do either the NWF or the ORF.

LNF: Letter Naming Fluency: How many letters could be correctly named in a given time.

Again our students could not do this part of the test.

So, for all the parts of the test that require a verbal response, we would have to alter it for our students. Therefore would the test still be valid and would it be worth spending the time adapting it or would our time be better spent creating our own test that meets the needs of our students?

In looking at various assessment packages, here are some ideas we thought would be good to include in our assessment material.

Letter / sound identification

Rhymes / blends identification

Sight word identification

Comprehension - listening
                         - reading

Initial and final phoneme identification

Decoding single words



Unknown said...

I agree! As an SLP who works primarily with low incidence students, this is always a struggle. Last year I had a graduate student adapt a test from Florida for the Dynavox. It really has been a help! I too had looked at DIBELS to see how it could be adapted, but fell short.

Unknown said...

I use an informal reading assessment created especially for non-verbal students or students who cannot speak well enough to express themselves effectively. It is called Reachme,created by Special Needs Planet. It is a computerized assessment. The books have great pictures and sound effects and they are fund for the kids to read so they don't even realize they are being "tested". It can be used to assess word identification, comprehension, and fluency. It can be used by switch scanners, mouse users or kids who use a touch screen. It is leveled like Fountas & pinnell, and each level has a story for fiction and non-fiction. So far, they have only levels A-F. I have found it to be really useful in getting good idea of my non-verbal students' silent reading level. you can find it at They have a video that explains it a lot better than I can. If you have any questions, feel free to email me at

Lila said...

I am a teacher who has taught several nonverbal students. I really like the suggestions in this blog. I have also taught my students Signed Exact English (similar to ASL but has all the prefixes and suffixes and verb tenses and sentence order of English). They enjoyed learning the signs, and doing the signs was a physically component that helped them remember the words (for the ones that were partially verbal).