What is transadaptation?

Have you ever sent home a translated version of a school newsletter to parents of students who are English Language Learners (ELLs)? A translation is adequate for a general communication of this sort to get information or a general point across. However, translation is simply not enough to identify students' skill mastery when it comes to assessing in two languages. Languages are not one-to-one codes. Structures, vocabulary, and sound systems are idiosyncratic from one language to the next. Validity is not baked into a test item on the level of language. This is why a process called transadaptation is necessary.

Transadaptation involves the revision or replacement of text that, while it may be a valid test of student skills in one language, would not be so in the target language. Some of these situations could involve:

  • Changes in vocabulary that are at different reading levels in different languages. For example, bat in English is a very simple word that emergent readers can generally decode with ease. The translation into Spanish—murciélago—presents a completely different level of difficulty and would not be appropriate at lower levels. An item focusing on a bat at the kindergarten level might need to be redone in Spanish with a different animal as the focus.
  • Adaptation of items testing very specific skills such as rhyming in poetry. An English item, translated into Spanish, would have no rhyme scheme at all and as such would need to be redone to maintain a rhyme scheme so that the skill could be tested.
  • Items that test single vocabulary words in English might not have direct translations in Spanish. For example, the word airborne in English could not be tested as such in Spanish because for certain meanings it is translated by a phrase meaning approximately "in flight."
  • Some direct translations do not make sense in context. For example, an item about a proposed change in usage from starfish to sea star makes no sense because in Spanish the term is already sea star: estrella de mar. This item would only work in English.
  • Sayings and idioms are not identical sets across languages. An informational item dealing with the origins or meaning of such idioms as "happy as a clam" or "as easy as pie" would make no sense directly translated. Specific Spanish sayings and idioms would need to be used.
  • Cultural phenomena sometimes are not translatable from one language to another. For example, in English, a shot in archery where the archer splits an arrow already in the target with his or her own arrow is called a "Robin Hood." This reference is very specific to English culture. An item describing what a "Robin Hood" is in archery would not work as a direct translation into Spanish.

What are the benefits of transadaptation?

Transadaptation is more flexible than simple translation. It is based on analysis of the linguistic requirements of languages in order to maintain difficulty levels and comprehensibility and avoid cultural bias. It maintains, to the greatest extent possible, the validity of assessment items in a translation process. Thus, transadapted items are designed to give a precise picture of student skills in their native language in the terms of that language.

Sample of transadaptation in assessment:

English Example 1:

Transadaptation Example 1:

English Example 2:

Transadaptation Example 2:

What does it matter, anyway?

Students with emergent or no English language skills are often opaque to teachers, making it difficult to know how to approach instruction for them. Do students have transferable literacy skills? Are their difficulties in English reading just to do with a language gap? Or do they have low skills in their own language and need to acquire general literacy skills? Can they be expected to pick up on English more quickly or more slowly based on their native language skills? A valid assessment of Spanish language skills is critical to giving a teacher an accurate picture of a student's development level and knowledge gaps. Teachers can then move forward in developing instruction for ELL students with greater confidence.

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