Who are the Experts for Determining the Language, Cognitive, or Reading Abilities of Babies?
Parents provide reliable and valid concurrent information regarding their babies’ language abilities for receptive language, expressive vocabulary, overall language, vocabulary growth, grammar, and syntax (Dale, 1991; Dale, Bates, Reznick, & Morisset, 1989; Rescoria & Alley, 2001; Trudeau & Sutton, 2011).
Parental reports are reliable throughout the infant and toddler years, for normally developing children, to screen for children with language delays (e.g., Rescorla & Alley, 2001), for children learning English and Spanish concurrently (e.g., Marchman & Martínez-Sussmann, 2002), and for children across socio-economic classes and cultures (e.g., Janson & Squires, 2004; Kim & Sung, 2007; Chen, Lin, Wen, & Wu, 2007) in numerous studies.
Parental reports are even considered reliable and valid for screening infants for developmental delays (Knobloch, Stevens, Malone, Ellison, & Risemberg, 1979). Based on the parental reports, under-screening during infancy was 2.6% for those with major abnormalities and 10% for minor problems. Over-screening was only 6%.
Rescorla (1989) reported that the parental reports of vocabulary were “highly correlated with performance on Bayley, Reynell, and Preschool Language Scale expressive vocabulary items.” Those tests are expensive, time-consuming, and administered by trained professionals. However, parents were able to assess their children’s language skills with the same results. Rescorla also reported that parents were able to identify language delays “with a criterion of fewer than 50 words or no word combinations at 2 years yielding very low false positive and false negative rates.”
Social and Emotional Problems
In the social and emotional areas of infant development, tests have been devised for parents to administer to their infants to determine if the child has social or emotional problems. For example, Carter, et al., (2003) reported, “The Infant-Toddler Social and Emotional Assessment” (ITSEA) detects social-emotional and behavior problems and delays in the acquisition of competencies in toddlers 12 through 35 months of age. Parents and child care providers observe toddlers in natural environments and answer questions on the Parent Form or the Childcare Provider Form 1. The Parent Form may be administered as either a self-conducted questionnaire or a structured interview with questions read verbatim to parents.”
A shorter test called the Brief Infant-Toddler Social and Emotional Assessment (BITSEA) is also used to screen for social-emotional/behavioral problems and delays in competence. Briggs-Gowan, et. al (2004) reported that test-retest reliability was excellent. A baby’s mom and dad had interrater agreement as did one parent and the child-care provider. In other words, the people who are with the babies frequently, whether it’s the parents or the child-care providers, are able to make reliable reports on the babies’ abilities.
Cognitive Abilities Outside of the Language Domain
Parental reports have also been used in areas that are considered cognitive outside of the language domain. A study in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology showed that parents’ judgments of their own babies’ cognitive abilities were as accurate as (or surpassed when language information was included) those of trained assessors (Saudino, Dale, Oliver, Petrill, Richardson, Rutter, Simonoff, Stevenson, & Plomin, 1998).
The study measured the ability of parent reports and parent-administered tasks to determine non-verbal cognitive abilities in early childhood. “In a sample of 107 2-year-olds, age-corrected scores on parent reports and parent-administered tasks assessing non-verbal reasoning significantly predicted performance on the Mental Development Index (MDI) of the Bayley Scales of Infant Development-II two weeks later (r = .49 and r = .41, p < .0001, respectively). The multiple correlation between the two components and the MDI was .55 (p < .0001). This ability of parental assessments to predict the MDI is comparable to the predictive power of standard tester-administered measures at this age, even though the parent measure specifically excludes verbal items that are included in the MDI. Adding parent reports of language development significantly improved the prediction of the MDI (R = .66, p < .0001). In addition, higher within-domain than cross-domain correlations reflect a significant ability of parents to discriminate verbal and nonverbal abilities.”
Parents as Test Administrators
The study showed that parents are not only capable of providing reliable and valid reports on their children’s cognitive abilities, but that they are also capable of administering the tests. In addition, the parents were skilled at differentiating their babies’ verbal and nonverbal abilities. The parents were qualified to test and assess their children’s cognitive and language abilities.
Parents are also able to reliably assess their children’s cognitive deficits (Chen, Lin, Wen, & Wu, 2007). A more recent study used a different cognitive test and found that parents can administer the exam to their babies and get similar results to those administered by professionals on the Bayley Scales of Infant Development (Bakera, Schafera, Alcock, & Bartletta, 2013). The parent scores and the researcher scores on the exam demonstrated a strong agreement showing that the parents were about as accurate as the experts at administering a cognitive exam to their infants.
Bae (2007) found the same results on a completely different test requiring in-depth parental observations. The parents’ scores administering the tests were comparable to the trained professionals’. “Findings of both reliability studies, test-retest reliability with the ASQ-IT completed by parents, and inter-observer reliability between parents and professionals, suggested substantial consistency, p = .79 – .93 and p = .65 – .88 respectively.”
Parents actually under-reported their children’s receptive language abilities (Houston-Price, Mather, & Sakkalou, 2007). Parents were better at reporting their child’s expressive language abilities than receptive language abilities (Ring & Fenson, 2000). It is more difficult to know if your child is understanding language (called receptive language) than expressing it according to their findings. In other words, parents were less accurate about whether their children understand the meaning of the word (for example, “umbrella”) compared with knowing if their children can say the same word.
Bowers (2008) stated, “Because parents (and other primary caregivers) have expert knowledge about their child’s abilities and skills” she says it is important for parents to be involved in the reports. Studies by Glascoe and others (Glascoe, 1997; Glascoe & Dworkin, 1995) showed parents’ concerns about any of these domains were accurate: language, fine motor, cognitive, emotional-behavioral development.
Dale points out that parents are more accurate at assessing language behaviors the child is currently using and are easily observable. Retrospective data is not as reliable as concurrent data (Dale, 1996).
We do not need to make the logical assumption that all of the other studies about parents being experts on their babies’ language, cognitive, motor, social, health, and emotional development would also apply to reading, because empirical evidence already indicates that parental reports of their children’s reading abilities are reliable and competent scientific information. Evidence shows that in urban lower socio-economic status families “parent ratings were shown to provide at least as good information about language function as teacher ratings” on language tests that included reading (Massa, Gomes, Tartter, Wolfson, & Halperin, 2007).
And finally, what about just reading?
Are parents experts at knowing their young children’s reading abilities compared to being assessed on a reading test?
Arciuli, Stevens, Trembath, and Simpson (2013) wrote, in the highly respected Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, that “A key aim was to examine the relationship between parent report of adaptive behavior and direct assessment of reading ability in these children.” They used a variety of reading tests including: the Wide Ranging Achievement Test-IV (Wilkinson & Robertson, 2006) and the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability-III (Neale, 2007). The study found, “There is a significant relationship between parent self-report of adaptive behavior and direct assessment of children’s reading ability.”
Because of the science—not opinion—on parental reports, they must be accepted as competent and reliable scientific information about whether or not their babies, toddlers, or preschoolers are reading. The science is very clear—parents are experts on their own babies’ language and cognitive abilities—including reading.