Ways to test cognition without relying on language skills

Durant, K., Peña, E., Peña, A., Bedore, L. M., & Muñoz, M. R. (2019). Not all nonverbal tasks are equally nonverbal: Comparing two tasks in bilingual kindergartners with and without developmental language disorder. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 62(9), 3462-3469.

Aim of the paper:

When testing the cognitive abilities of children with DLD it is important to use measures that do not rely on verbal abilities. Nonverbal tests of cognitive skills are generally recommended for children with DLD. However, children’s performance in nonverbal tests can still be affected by factors other than their cognitive ability, such as culture and verbal mediation (talking through a problem out-loud, or inside your head). This paper aims to compare the performance of Spanish-English bilingual children with and without DLD on two nonverbal cognitive tasks: the symbolic memory task and the cube design task.

Symbolic memory task: designed to assess children’s ability to use their inner speech to label, organise, and categorise symbols. During the task, the child is presented with a series of simple pictures arranged in a specific order and is then asked to replicate the sequence.

Cube design task: designed to assess children’s spatial visualization and orientation abilities. This is the ability to understand where things are in space. The child is given blocks with geometric designs and is asked to copy the model shown in a picture by manipulating the blocks in a way that matches the model.

What they found:

  • Children with DLD had significantly lower performance than children without DLD in the symbolic memory task.

  • There is no significant difference in performance between children with and without DLD in the cube design task.

What does this mean?

The findings show that bilingual children with DLD may perform differently on some non-verbal tasks to bilingual children without DLD. The findings also show that nonverbal cognitive tasks can be used by clinicians to give information about the location and severity of cognitive difficulties, to inform diagnostic decisions. Also, non-verbal cognitive tasks could guide clinicians in planning interventions that match the child’s strengths and weaknesses, for example using visuo-spatial strategies to facilitate language learning with children who have strong spatial visualization/orientation abilities.

However, the findings also show that difficulties with nonverbal cognitive skills are not equal across all tasks. The researchers suggest that professionals should interpret the results from nonverbal cognitive tasks carefully. Professionals should not assume that non-verbal cognitive tasks are entirely separate from language ability, because even some non-verbal cognitive tasks will require some level of verbal mediation (talking through a problem out loud, or in your head).

Where can I read this paper?

This paper is not open access, but it can be accessed here.