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This study added to the growing body of literature demonstrating a correlation between socioeconomic status and performance on standardized vocabulary tests. Standardized vocabulary tests were not found to have an acceptable level of accuracy in diagnosing the presence of a language impairment.

Background: This study examined the effect of socioeconomic status (SES) on the early lexical performance of African American children.

Hypotheses: The researchers hypothesized that there would be a difference in performance on commonly used lexical-semantic measures (PPVT-III, EVT, NDW, and fast mapping task) between typically developing AA toddlers from low and middle-SES groups. Additionally, they believed that SES differences would vary with the type of lexical-semantic measures.

Methodology and Participants: Thirty African American toddlers (30 to 40 months old) from low-SES (n = 15) and middle-SES (n = 15) backgrounds participated in the study. Their lexical-semantic performance was examined on 2 norm-referenced standardized tests of vocabulary, a measure of lexical diversity (number of different words) derived from language samples, and a fast mapping task that examined novel word learning.

Conclusion: Toddlers from low-SES homes performed significantly poorer than those from middle-SES homes on standardized receptive and expressive vocabulary tests and on the number of different words used in spontaneous speech. No significant SES group differences were observed in their ability to learn novel word meanings on a fast mapping task.

Relevance to the Field: This study demonstrates the bias of standardized vocabulary testing as it is highly correlated with SES and not the presence of language disorder. In addition, this study emphasizes the importance of comparing children to the peers in their speech community rather than to norms from individuals with very different linguistic, cultural, and SES backgrounds. Comparing the vocabulary and lexical diversity of a child from a low SES background to that of middle SES children is a common reason that children from low SES backgrounds are over-identified as language impaired. Finally, this study shows that fast mapping tasks are appropriate assessment tools for children from low SES backgrounds. Fast mapping tasks are much less biased against culturally and linguistically diverse children and provide more accurate diagnostic evidence for this population than standardized vocabulary tests. It is essential that clinicians be aware of bias in standardized assessment materials since this bias can result in children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds being mislabeled with a disability when they do not have one. In addition, children from middle SES backgrounds may be under-identified since these standardized language tests are biased in their favor and make them appear to perform better than if they were compared to their peers.

Horton-Ikard, R., & Weismer, S. E. (2007). A preliminary examination of vocabulary and word learning in African American toddlers from middle and low socioeconomic status homes. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 16(4), 381-392.