Researchers at UMass Amherst Awarded Grant to Study Speech, Language in African-American Children

AMHERST, Mass. - The National Institute of Deafness and Communication Disorders, a branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has awarded a $2.7 million contract to researchers at the University of Massachusetts for a six-year research project to study the speech and language patterns of African-American children.

The principal investigator of the study is Harry N. Seymour, who chairs the University’s department of communication disorders. Seymour is collaborating with Thomas Roeper, of the University’s linguistics department, and Jill deVilliers, of the Smith College psychology department, in leading an interdisciplinary research team comprised of more than 20 consultants from around the country.

Seymour said the research contract is the culmination of a 15-month competitive process begun in November 1996 in response to a request for a proposal from NIH to develop a language assessment test that would be culturally and linguistically fair in identifying speech and language disorders among African-American children.

Seymour said the research initiative addresses a long-standing problem within the field of communication disorders -- the absence of standardized assessment tests appropriate for children whose language backgrounds are other than Standard American English. Seymour says the problem is particularly relevant for -- but not unique to -- African-American children.

"Because of historical, social, cultural, and educational factors, many black children enter school throughout the United States speaking a common dialect that is quite different from their white and black peers who come from homes in which Standard American English is the dominant dialect," Seymour says. "Most of both groups of children are perfectly normal in their speech and language development, but are simply different in that one speaks Standard American English and one group does not."

However, Seymour says, somewhere between 8 and 12 percent of all children will arrive at school with speech and language disorders, regardless of their dialect back-grounds. He says: "We have tests to identify these problems in children of Standard English-speaking backgrounds, but not for those African-American children who do not speak Standard English. As a consequence, misdiagnosis can occur, resulting in either over-representation or under-representation in special education programs."

Seymour says many dialects in the United States require interpretive adjustments when language specialists give standardized tests to children. As an example, he gives the dropped "r" dialect used by many children from Boston, who may say "pahk" or "cah," instead of "park" or "car."

When testing for disability, speech language pathologists must take these kinds of dialects into consideration, Seymour says: "It would be ludicrous to suggest some disability on the part of these children, and wrong to penalize them for their dialect pattern. The same is true for many African-American children." Seymour says the issue is also more complex for African-American children than for children from Boston, for example, because many more features may be involved in the dialect besides just a dropped "r."

To address the need for such a test, the UMass research team will be involved in a collaborative effort with scholars from the fields of communication disorders, linguistics, education, and psychology, as well as with the Psychological Corporation of America, which will serve as the primary subcontractor and which, in conjunction with the research team, will be responsible for much of the nationally based subject selection, administration of test materials, normalization of language skills, and standardization of the final assessment instrument.

Seymour says the Psychological Corporation is uniquely suited to perform this role, in that "they are the largest developers of assessment tests in the country."

In sum, Seymour says, the Psychological Corporation’s experience in test development combined with the expertise of the research team in child language acquisition and disorders "brings together an exceptionally qualified group to develop a valid and reliable instrument to test speech and language disorders in African-American children."