UA researcher receives grant to study speech disorders in bilingual children

TUCSON, Ariz. - An associate professor at the University of Arizona has received a $2.5 million federal grant for research involving an issue that is critical in Arizona and other states with large Hispanic populations: the diagnosis and misdiagnosis of speech sound disorders in bilingual Latino children.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Latino children make up 25 percent of elementary school students in the U.S., a figure that is expected to rise to 30 percent by 2030. However, when it comes to diagnosing speech sound disorders in bilingual children, at least 40 percent of speech-language pathologists say they are more likely to avoid diagnosing a communication disorder due to their own lack of knowledge. 

That is the issue Leah Fabiano-Smith, an associate professor in the UA Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences is working to solve. She is developing evidence-based diagnostic criteria for clinicians to differentiate typically developing bilingual children from bilingual children with speech sound disorders. "School-based speech-language pathologists, or SLPs, are required to provide culturally competent services to all children, including those who speak both English and Spanish," Fabiano-Smith said. "They face a great clinical challenge: accurate identification of speech sound disorders in children who speak two languages," she said.

While there are many standardized tests that SLPs can use for monolingual children, there is only one for bilingual children. A five-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders, part of the National Institutes of Health, will allow Fabiano-Smith to continue the research she started in 2015 to reduce health and educational disparities for bilingual children. Fabiano-Smith will continue building on her earlier research to develop tools that SLPs need to accurately diagnose speech sound disorders in Latino children. Fabiano-Smith and her research team partnered with Tucson's Sunnyside Unified School District, which is approximately 82 percent Latino, and are continuing their work with 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool programs. The children are recorded while being asked to identify pictures; the recordings are then analyzed to determine where the children are having problems with their speech sound production. If a bilingual child is not producing English speech sounds exactly like their monolingual peers, they may not have a disorder. They may just need extra help with English language skills, Fabiano-Smith said. 

The NIH grant will allow Fabiano-Smith to use the data collected in her first study to develop an evidence-based assessment procedure for identifying bilingual children with speech disorders. Her goal is to create a test for bilingual children that is both accurate and efficient. 

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