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Reading Tests

Vol. 18 •Issue 2 • Page 6
Reading Tests

For children with word-finding difficulties

Children with word-finding difficulties are not difficult to spot. The flow of their conversation is disfluent because they experience an overwhelming number of "tips of the tongue" when they can't come up with a word they want to use. They'll often snap their fingers or make gestures in the process, and sometimes they'll use the wrong word, speak in vague terms, and overuse empty words.

Because they have trouble expressing themselves orally, they have difficulty with oral reading. As a result, these children often are placed into remedial reading classrooms even though they can decode and understand the written word just fine; they instead need help with their oral language.

For children with word-finding difficulties, oral reading tests may be misapplied. The results of these tests often are improperly interpreted as indicative of a child's reading or decoding ability, according to Rochelle Newman, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences at the University of Maryland in College Park.

"People overlook the fact that children could fail on reading tests for reasons that have nothing to do with reading," she told ADVANCE. "They assume they're testing only reading, when really they're testing both reading and oral language skills."

Furthermore, most tests do not examine the different types of mistakes children make. Instead, all errors are assumed to be simply errors.

"When oral reading tests are used with students with word-finding difficulties, professionals are not getting the true picture of the child's reading or decoding skills," said Diane German, PhD, a professor in the Department of Special Education at National-Louis University in Chicago, IL. Along with Dr. Newman, she recently completed a study that shows that oral screening tests "misread" children with word-finding abilities.

Placing children in remedial reading classes who don't belong there can have a number of consequences, including a wide array of self-perception issues. It prevents children from getting the help they need, which spells bad news for the future and may start the child on a potentially irreversible spiral of failure.

"It has implications for how teachers are going to treat them," cautioned Dr. Newman, director of the Language Perception and Development Labs at the University of Maryland. "The teachers are going to assume these children can't read and won't give them the kind of tasks that would actually challenge them. It's going to change the student's whole perception of what school is like and whether or not it's worthwhile."

"We're trying to alert teachers to the impact of word-finding difficulties on students' oral reading test performance so that they will not underestimate their reading skills," said Dr. German, who served as principle investigator for the study.

The researchers advise speech-language pathologists and reading teachers to use silent reading tests, which are more accurate because they separate reading and spoken language and can be used to test either reading comprehension or decoding.

"They don't have the oral language component built in," they noted. "If a child has a true problem with reading and comprehending text, it will still show up on the silent reading measures; but the child who has problems only with the oral reading won't have difficulty on the silent reading tests."

If clinicians are checking decoding skills, they should ask children to "show me this word" or "underline the answer" rather than "tell me" or "read to me." Tasks such as multiple-choice questions and asking the child to circle the part of the story that contains the answer to a teacher's question can be used to assess a child's ability to comprehend text.

If oral reading tests are used, it's important that they are always followed up with silent reading tasks.

"Following up on all oral reading errors to see if the child can read those same words silently is very important," urged Dr. German.

Clinicians can start by asking the child to read a word out loud, "as long as they don't stop there. If the child fails, go back and ask them to find the word in a multiple-choice format. If they can find the word and read it silently, they can decode the word. That's the measure you use."

The difference between silent reading tests and oral reading tests is in the task format. Essentially, it is the difference between asking a child, "What sound does this make?" and "Show me this sound."

"Naming or saying the sound is the word-finding piece; the decoding is the 'show me' piece," she explained. "We're asking for a switch to silent reading, which is 'show me,' 'find the word,' or 'underline the word,' not 'What word is this?' or 'What sound is this?'" This kind of task switching is very important for these children, said Dr. German.

There are a number of ways in which professionals can evaluate how well a child with word-finding difficulties can comprehend silent reading tasks. For example, they can ask children to locate specific words in a story or to locate the word that identifies a particular character or tells the reader that the character was sad. These types of tasks allow children to demonstrate their understanding of what they're reading without having to orally retrieve the material.

Because remedial reading teachers focus on the oral aspect of reading, they often don't see the results of their work with children who have word-finding difficulties, stated Dr. German.

"The children are benefiting from their instruction and learning to decode words, but their oral reading will always be weak because that's the nature of their word-finding problems. If [reading teachers] switched to silent tasks, they would see all the fruits of their labor."

In their research Drs. German and Newman divided children into two groups: those with word-finding problems, and typical children who hadn't yet learned to read. If the children with word-finding problems—who had been incorrectly diagnosed as having reading problems—actually had difficulty reading, the researchers believed that they would look like the children who hadn't yet learned how to read.

But they didn't, said Dr. Newman.

"Not only did they not show the same percentage of errors on their silent tests, they made different types of errors and made mistakes on different types of words."

The first major finding in the study was a significant discrepancy between the oral and silent reading of the same words in children with word-finding difficulties. This was very telling, said Dr. German.

"The oral reading accuracy was very low," she said. "But their accuracy jumped to 90 percent when we gave them the same words on a silent reading recognition task where we said, 'Can you find the words?' That discrepancy points out that the oral reading isn't accurate for the student with word-finding difficulties."

The recognition tasks in the study embedded the target word with three phonemically similar words. For example, if the target word was "put," it would have been grouped with decoys "pun," "pot" and "pull." In these tasks the children were forced to decode the words silently in order to come to a conclusion.

"When you have decoys so close phonetically, the child has to decode the word in order for him to choose the right word," said Dr. German.

She and Dr. Newman recommend that clinicians engage a student in silent reading recognition tasks in order to make sure they're not overlooking the fact that the child can decode the word silently.

The researchers went on to test the typical children, who didn't yet have decoding skills, and found they didn't show the discrepancy. If they missed it orally, they also missed it in the silent reading recognition task.

"This is what we see in children who are really having reading problems or haven't learned to read yet," Dr. German said.

The second finding was that the two groups of children had difficulty with different types of words. The performance of the children with word-finding problems differed for words that had common phonological patterns vs. those that had uncommon phonological patterns.

"Children with word-finding problems tend to have more trouble with words that have common phonological patterns. Interestingly, they have that same difficulty in oral language," she said. "This showed us that we are observing oral language in the oral reading tasks," and that the true difficulties of these children lie in the oral language domain.

"They had trouble retrieving words to express their thoughts," said Dr. German. "Reading and oral language intersect in oral reading, which is why the oral reading task is so confounded. It becomes compromised by the child's poor oral language. The true difficulty is an underlying oral language problem, specifically word retrieval or word-finding."

The role of the speech-language pathologist is extremely important in identifying and treating children with word-finding difficulties.

"Speech-language pathologists must be involved from the start. They understand oral language," said Dr. German. "Most kids with word-finding difficulties have been scooped up and flagged as having reading problems due to their oral reading difficulties. We need to check their silent reading skills and make sure that there's not a misdiagnosis there."

She said the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association is asking clinicians to get involved in children's reading programs.

"Reading is a language," she said, "and one of the biggest impacts on oral reading is the expressive language difficulty, or word-finding problems."

Suggested Reading

  • German, D. (2005). Word-Finding Intervention Program (2nd ed.). Austin, TX: Pro-Ed Inc.

    For More Information

  • Diane German, e-mail:, online:

  • Rochelle Newman, e-mail:

    Jason Mosheim is an Associate Editor for ADVANCE. He can be reached at


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