ORONO (AP) – A University of Maine professor has developed a computerized test that measures infants’ and toddlers’ language skills in a matter of minutes.

Alan Cobo-Lewis, an associate professor of psychology, said the test is shorter than others now on the market and is thus able to sooner identify children with language problems.

A lag in language skills could indicate a developmental problem that might affect a child socially and academically, he said.

Cobo-Lewis said the tool could be on the market late next year for pediatricians, speech therapists and psychologists to screen children ages 8 months to 36 months for language delays. It can also determine how much children understand and how well they speak.

“Pediatricians typically plot a child’s growth curve to see how they’re growing over time,” said Cobo-Lewis, who worked on the project with Trefoil Corp., a software development company in Orono. “We (wanted) to have a fast tool so pediatricians could plot how well a child’s language is growing over time.”

Cobo-Lewis’ computerized program is based on the MacArthur Communicative Development Inventories, a paper and pencil test that estimates how a child’s language skills compare to what’s expected at a given age.

The hour-long MacArthur test requires parents to review 493 words for infants 8 to 16 months, and 797 words for toddlers 15 to 30 months. The computerized version asks just 22 questions and can be completed in five minutes.

Researchers have validated the new test by having parents take both the long and short versions and then comparing results, Cobo-Lewis said. So far, 85 area parents have been tested.

Since the goal is to devise a national assessment test, parents in Massachusetts also are being used as subjects to provide “an ethnically diverse population,” Cobo-Lewis said.

The new version is quicker because it focuses on questions that are relevant to the particular child, Cobo-Lewis said. It calculates language level using each successive word.

For example, parents of a girl around the age of 1 might be asked if their child knows the word “shoes.” If she doesn’t understand the word, or if she understands but doesn’t say it, the program might ask about the word “ball,” which girls usually learn slightly earlier.

If the girl does say “shoes,” the program might ask about the word “brush,” which girls usually learn slightly later.

With the test now in the final stage of research, Cobo-Lewis is recruiting more parents for testing, including those with children suspected of having language delays.

Some parents liked participating because it helped them reflect on their child’s verbal skills, he said.

Others, he said, “tended to be incredulous – how can the test work so quickly?”

AP-ES-08-03-03 1326EDT

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