Understanding bilingual children’s voices using adult models

Rachel Wright Karem, University of Cincinnati, USA (
Karla N. Washington, University of Cincinnati, USA (

Background: Assessments standardised for monolingual speakers remain the gold-standard in establishing developmental status for bilingual speakers. This practice in educational and clinical settings often results in misdiagnosis for level of language functioning in children. To address this concern, expert best practice recommendations include the use of adult models to guide interpretations of children’s language use, particularly in understudied linguistic contexts. This study utilised adult models from the same linguistic community as the children to inform Jamaican Creole (JC)-English-speaking preschoolers’ responses to a standardized assessment of their language skills.

Aim: To characterise the word structure and expressive vocabulary of JC-English-speaking preschoolers compared to JC-English-speaking adults.

Method: JC-English-speaking preschoolers (n=176) and adults (n=33) completed the Word Structure and Expressive Vocabulary subtests of the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals-Preschool 2. Adult and child responses to subtest items were analysed and compared using content analysis, a qualitative, systematic analysis providing interpretation of meaning from text. Twenty percent (n=35) of preschoolers’ language samples were also analysed to provide confirmatory evidence of linguistic themes in standardised contexts.

Results: Content analysis revealed similar patterns of performance regarding the linguistic nature of adult and child responses, evidencing the following themes: (a) JC-influenced morphological structure, e.g., sleep for sleeps; (b) JC-influenced lexical variation, e.g., gleaner for newspaper; and (c) use of functional description, e.g., to see from afar for binoculars. JC-English-speaking preschoolers also demonstrated similar patterns of linguistic features (e.g., use of functional descriptions) to adults in standardised and naturalistic assessment contexts.

Conclusions: Using adult models in the English assessment context can provide a feasible and ecologically valid approach, supported by expert best practice recommendations, to more accurately inform bilingual children’s language use.

Implications for children: It is amazing that many children speak two languages! It is important for educators to understand how you use your languages. We want to celebrate the ways you talk! We can learn from you and adults who speak your languages too!

Implications for families: It is important that educators have an accurate understanding of bilingual children’s language. We can better understand the unique ways that bilingual children use their languages by also listening to bilingual adults in the community!

Implications for practitioners: This study provides both a structure for using adult models in assessment and specific examples of linguistic patterns you may see when working with JC-English-speaking preschoolers.

Funding: The first author is a doctoral scholar and the second author is a co-Investigator on a United States Department of Education Preparation of Special Education, Early Intervention, and Related Services Leadership Personnel grant. The research was supported by an Endowment to the Jamaican Creole Language Project and a University of Cincinnati Vice-President for Research Start-up Funds.

Key words: children’s voices, Jamaican Creole, language development, standardised assessments, vulnerable communities, qualitative methods, preschoolers, bilingual

This presentation relates to the following United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: