Signed Language Development Checklist

The Signed Language Development Checklist and its training manual have been developed by Judith Mounty (1993, 1994) at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey. The presented version (pilot study) of the checklist was never subjected to a large scale study due to budget constrains. Hence, certain issues that are mentioned in the review of the other instruments cannot be presented here, since the constrains of the limited work that has been done with the tool (J. Mounty, personal communication, December 20, 1999).

The Signed Language Development Checklist fills the gap with respect to available instruments for evaluating the language development of deaf individuals. It is intended to be used in conjunction with other measurements and assessment techniques. It is designed to assess an individual’s ASL/ASL-oriented signed language development.

Using the Signed Language Development Checklist provides more than just a screening. When using the entire checklist, quite a range of linguistic structures are assessed. It is more an in-depth investigation than a screen.

The instrument has been used in its pilot study in the age range from deaf preschool children to  adults. In the beginning the checklist was designed to be used with deaf students (Mounty, 1993).

The Signed Language Development Checklist assesses only expressive language skills. It assesses aspects of ASL in the following domains: (1) overall language ability (communicative competence), (2) linguistic use, e.g. formational aspects (i.e. phonology), morphology, syntax, perspective (role play), and (3) creative use of the language.

The checklist assesses different linguistic structures in ASL, that are tested by the different categories of the checklist. In the beginning of the checklist, the Overall Language Ability of the individual is assessed, followed by the categories that assess certain linguistic features in ASL.

The goal of assessing the Overall Language Ability is to address the capacity of effective communication of the tested individual. The tester must assess “the extent to which an individual’s language ability serves his/her communication needs” (Mounty, 1993, p. 10). Three levels of the Overall Language Ability can be coded, with Code 1 as the lowest and Code 3 as the highest score obtained.

The next category is the Formational Domain, which focuses on basic components of a single sign: (1) handshape, (2) movement, (3) location, and (4) palm orientation. Because the progress in one area of the Formational Domain reflects progress in the other area, the checklist focuses only on two subcategories: handshape and movement.

Handshape: Handshapes in ASL differ in their complexity (unmarked vs. marked). Three levels can be coded for handshapes ranging from Code 1 as the lowest to Code 3 as the highest score. This system is maintained through the entire Signed Language Development Checklist.

Movement: Movements in ASL differ in their complexity, from unmarked to marked.

The next part of the Signed Language Development Checklist focuses on the Morphological Domain. It examines two types of morphological modifications of signs: verb and noun modifications.

Verb Modification: The following verb modifications are covered by the checklist: (1) intensifier, (2) manner, (3) aspect, (4) number, and (5) distribution.

Noun Modification: The following noun modifications are covered in the checklist: (1) intensifier, (2) size, (3) quality, (4) shape, (5) spatial arrangement, and (6) quantification.

The next part is the Syntactic Domain. It focuses on the structure and composition of ASL sentences.

Establishing & Use of Spatial Reference (Indexing): Indexing is required for pronominalization, verb agreement, and role play. There are three types of indexing: (1) Real World Indexing, where the signers refers to a physically present entity, (2) Semi-Real World Indexing, where “[..] the signer uses a physically present object or entity to refer to another, non present, object or entity” (Mounty, 1993, p. 24), and (3) Full (Abstract) Indexing, where the signer sets up a point in space referring to it as a non-present entity.

Sentence Types: The sentence types that are tested by the checklist correspond with a specific class of verbs in ASL (plain verbs, agreement verbs, and motion/location verbs). The sentence types are (1) sentences with plain verbs, (2) sentences with agreement verbs, and (3) sentences with motion/location verbs.

Syntactic Structures: In these subcategories different syntactic structures occurring in ASL are evaluated. These subcategories are: (1) negation, (2) questions, specifically yes/no questions, (3) wh-questions, (4) topic marking, (5) topic continuation, (6) relative clause, and (7) conditionals. All these seven subcategories require an appropriate facial expression.

The next domain of the checklist is the Perspective Domain. The subcategory of the perspective domain is role play. In role play, the signer takes on different roles by using upper body shift, eye gaze, and facial expression.

The last area in the checklist is the Creative Use of Language. The creative use of language shows that an individual can put together the parts or pieces of a language in new and interesting ways. The creative signing should be described.

Research on the structure of ASL and its acquisition have been reviewed in order to develop the Signed Language Development Checklist. Not everything known about ASL has been included in the checklist; only linguistic structures that were believed to be key features of the language were selected. The assumption was that when an individual shows proficiency in one aspect of ASL he/she is most likely to master related aspects of the language. The point was to limit the checklist to a carefully selected subset of categories, which should be able to assess effectively an individual’s language mastery.

The Signed Language Development Checklist is a criterion-referenced test. The language performance of the tested subject is scored with regard to his/her level of mastery. The checklist can either be used during a live observation or to analyze a videotaped language sample.

The deaf student can be involved in one of the following situations in order to videotape a language sample of him/her. The situations can be that the students is (1) involved in a conversation with a peer or adult (topics/questions are provided), (2) watching, then retelling a cartoon story to a peer or adult in ASL, (3) and/or sharing an experience, e.g. family trip with his/her class.

The information presented here about the Signed Language Development Checklist is based on a paper from 1994 and 1993, respectively. In this paper no information about the time involved in the scoring was mentioned.

Only one domain of the checklist can be used and, consequently, only selected linguistic aspects can be assessed if needed. That leaves an assessor both to consider time constraints (entire checklist or only parts of it) and need of either assessing all domains or only selected linguistic aspects. The possibility to make the observation across different sessions or only one session, or to choose between live observation (less time consuming) and analyzing a video, give the assessor a great deal of flexibility in the scope of assessing a deaf student.

The checklist was revised several times prior to 1994. It has provided input to a new instrument which is now used at Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C. This instrument is not available to the public yet (J. Mounty, personal communication, December 20, 1999).

No psychometric properties can be provided for the original version (pilot) since it was used only in a small study.

Among the strengths of the Signed Language Development Checklist are: (1) it assesses both communicative competence (overall language ability) and certain linguistic structures, (2) it can be used in an educational setting, (3) and it is flexible regarding which parts should be assessed and subsequently analyzed.

Among the weaknesses of the checklist are:(1) the psychometric analysis not yet reported and (2) it assesses only language production.

No update is available for the Signed Language Development Checklist since it is not in active use (J. Mounty, personal communication, June 9, 2003).


From: Tobias Haug: “Review of Sign Language Assessment Instruments”, an earlier version of that paper 2005.

For more information regarding this test, please contact  Judy Mounty at Gallaudet University.