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English Language Learners Clinical and Special Education Woodcock-Johnson

Are the WJ IV Tests of Cognitive Abilities Language-loaded? One Evaluator's Perspective

Dr. Edward K. Schultz
Written By Dr. Edward K. Schultz
On Aug 16, 2023
5 minute read

Why Language Loading is Actually Important: A Unique Lens into a Student's Functioning

For several years, I have heard evaluators in workshops and trainings make statements describing the Woodcock-Johnson IV Tests of Cognitive Abilities (WJ IV Cog) as having a limitation of being “language loaded” and not suitable for emergent bilingual students and sometimes with students with specific learning disabilities. Critiques question the accuracy of the information and worry because students “don’t do well.” I worry these critiques reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the uses and limitations of testing and an over-dependence on norm-referenced test data. This often opens the door to discuss improved practice and bigger conversations about language.  Here are some things to consider about the WJ IV Cog being “language loaded.”   


  1. Cognition does not occur without a degree of language development. In other words, cognition does not operate independent from language. When examining the task demands of the WJ IV Cog, some tests require more advanced language development than other tasks. Just like in the classrooms, language demands shift when asked to do certain tasks. “Turn to page 6” does not have the language demands of “according to the story, what is the perspective of the main character.” A test, whose main purpose is to understand learning in the classroom, needs to reflect the type of tasks a student may encounter in the classroom. To reduce the language demands of every test would compromise the generalizability and usefulness of the test. To have a range of tasks that require advanced cognitive and linguistic demands as well as simpler tasks that have reduced cognitive and linguistic demands is a strength of the instrument, not a limitation.

  2. To understand the influence of language in the WJ IV Cog, an examiner must be skilled in test selection and test interpretation. Understanding task demands of the tests assist the examiner in selection and interpretation. For example, Concept Formation, a higher order thinking ability of fluid reasoning (Gf) requires a higher degree of listening comprehension to follow the instructions than Number Series (Gf) test that has significantly reduced language demand in the instructions.  In a similar manner, the language demands of the working memory tests of the Verbal Attention test are higher compared to the Picture Recognition test. The language demands must be considered when interpreting student results. This is helpful in distinguishing if an emergent bilingual struggles due to reasoning or memory or due to the language demands.

  3. The high majority of kids referred for testing in schools are referred for a specific learning disability, most often in reading. The definition of SLD, by definition requires language to be considered alongside of cognition (i.e., “psychological process involved in using language”). This essentially links the construct of cognition and language by the phrase “involved in.” The WJ IV Cog allows us to examine this link and use the information to assist in the identification process. In addition, the definition includes the phrase “listen, think, and speak.” The WJ IV Cog is validated to consider these abilities. The validity chapter of the WJ IV Technical Manual describes the inputs (Listen), cognitive processes, (Thinking), and the outputs (Speak) for each test. An examiner will find this information helpful when trying to understand the learner. 

  4. Overdependence and overreliance on norm-referenced tests is often evident within the “language-loaded” criticism. There is often a fundamental misunderstanding regarding the proper use of a norm-referenced test when assessing emergent bilinguals.  This is especially true in test selection and interpretation. In order to select appropriate tools, language proficiency must be predetermined prior to test selection using multiple sources of data. In the same vein, to interpret performance multiple sources of data need to be used. These are principles from the Responsible Test Interpretation Standards from the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing.  When any test is used in isolation or “over-relied” on, we risk interpretive errors. 


Something else that often gets over-looked is the test manual guidance for special populations (P. 43 for Emergent Bilinguals). For special populations, the WJ IV Cog has general guidelines to consider when assessing students with second language needs as well as kids we suspect of having learning disabilities. The process of testing these special populations is often as important as the product (test scores) of the test. We gain insight from maneuvering through the different tasks that tap into specific abilities. These insights also help us seamlessly transition to other tests included in the WJ IV family.  For example, since the Woodcock-Munoz Language Survey III is co-normed with the WJ IV direct comparisons can be made.  


Concluding Thoughts

I hope this article has given evaluators “food for thought” regarding the WJ IV as being “language loaded.” It is important for evaluators to consider which tools are best to use for an individual student based on their unique circumstances. Before evaluators to dismiss a test due to it being “language loaded,” I hope they may reconsider and look at these statements as problems with interpretation, not the test. Finally, SLD has traditionally been framed as more of an issue of “psychological processes” or cognition and little attention is paid to the language aspects of he disorder. If evaluators engaged in a the study of language and its impact on intelligence and achievement they would strengthen their evaluations and interpretive power.    


Dr. Edward K. Schultz is a Professor of Special Education at Midwestern State University (MSU). In addition to preparing educational diagnosticians at MSU, he has written numerous peer reviewed articles concerning SLD identification, conduct training across the country, and has worked with state departments of education.


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