Speak•a•boo: The future of accessible speech assessment in a multilingual world (Spotlight on Good Practice Series)


Every once in a while I come across something that warms the cockles of my heart and delights me professionally at the same time. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of living one of those personal/professional moments. Several years ago I met Mirjam Blumenthal, a speech and language pathologist (SLP) from Koninklijke Kentalis, which is an organisation dedicated to diagnosis and therapy for speech and language here in the Netherlands. I don’t have proof, but at 225 years old, I would suspect it is one of the oldest of its type in the world. Mirjam and I met at an EU conference on Early Language Learning (Poliglotti4eu) where we were both speaking about our respective specialisations. I was extremely impressed with her depth of knowledge about and dedication to working with multilingual children in the area of speech and language diagnosis and therapy. I have found over the years that far too few speech and language pathologists have training in working with young bilinguals, and this often leads to inaccurate diagnoses due to misunderstandings about bilingual development. Over the years I’ve referred many, many families to Kentalis, knowing that they will have a safe welcome and get appropriate support, regardless of the home language of their child.

One of the complicated and enduring issues for speech assessment with young children is that the assessment needs to happen not just in the school language, but also in their own language to have any validity. So if the family speaks a language at home that is not represented in the SLP community, getting an accurate assessment of speech development can be next to impossible. In a master stroke of innovation in the field, Kentalis has created a speech assessment app that can be used by an SLP who does not speak the child’s language, with the support of a formal or informal interpreter, possibly a parent/caregiver. There are currently eight languages available in the Speak·a·boo app (Dutch, Turkish, Polish, Somali, Tarifit, Egyptian, Moroccan, & Papiamento). Each speech assessment was developed with the expertise of at least one SLP who speaks the target language, and through community surveys. The assessment consists of 27-36 words (depending on the language) that contain within them the consonants of the language, so each word needs to be carefully chosen and vetted to ensure the speech sounds would be consistent across the greater community (ruling out words with multiple versions and pronunciations). The breadth of the task is enormous, but the end result is nothing short of amazing. The simple, interactive app allows the child to participate in a game-like activity, which elicits the words naturally. The native-speaker support person simply inputs if the child pronounced the word accurately or not. After the test the support person and SLP verify accuracy together by playing back the separately recorded words, and comparing them to the pre-recorded target words. The SLP puts the result on a printed score form and makes a report.   Over my many years of working with bilingual families, one of the most heart-wrenching things I deal with is parents feeling that they have somehow damaged or done a disservice to their child by using their own language with them. This is especially common when a child has speech issues, and parents believe (or are told) that it is because they don’t use the right language with their child. Speak·a·boo does two things. Firstly, it helps families get clear and early answers about their child’s speech development, in their own language (the eight current languages will be added to as staff and funding permit). Secondly, and more importantly, the availability of speech assessment in their own language sends a powerful message to families: that their language has value, and is valued, enough to bring it into the clinical assessment process. The native-speaker is key to the process and is supported by the professional, and this ruptures the often common power-imbalance between majority language medical professionals and immigrant/minority language parents. The dedication that Kentalis has shown in dedicating so much time and energy to developing this approach has provided the rest of the world with a fantastic resource for working more ethically with minority-language speaking children.

Speak·a·boo is available for download on the iTunes store, for iPad (2017).

An article on the Kentalis website can be found by clicking on their logo below.


Identity language – what’s that? (Spotlight on Good Practice series)

To reject the child’s language in school is to reject the child.

  • Jim Cummins

First language, home language, mother tongue, family language… all these terms are used in international education, to try and talk about the languages students bring into schools. But what is implied by all these terms, and how does that affect the language possibilities of students in international schools? When international schools offer programmes designed to support the other languages their students speak they generally designate the mother tongue of the child as the language to support. They may use any of the terms I listed (and they may even have found another term that I didn’t list!) but the bottom line is usually that they set out to support a language that is spoken in the student’s home – usually linked to their passport country. Families are normally required to declare one language as the dominant language or most important language, to be supported by extra classes.

So what’s wrong with that? I write all the time about the importance of schools supporting home languages, so I should be happy when they do, shouldn’t I? Technically, yes. And technically, I am! But I’ve learned something valuable from the EAL/MT team at the International School of The Hague recently, and I’d like to share it as an example of good practice, and how paying attention to the learners in your schools will make you a better school.

At the beginning of the 2014-2015 academic year, the EAL and Mother Tongue (MT) staff at ISH hosted their annual meeting for parents of bilingual students. This meeting was informational in nature, to present the programmes that ISH offered for language support for learning English, as well as the MT programmes . At the time, ISH was offering after-school MT programmes for some languages, and had a one-hour a week integrated period, where students came together in language groups and worked on accessing classroom learning through their MT. The idea of supporting MT in schools was one that ISH had always firmly believed in, but in practice it was difficult. The after-school programme was run by the school, but was not inherently connected to school learning. The one-hour MT slot in the schedule was unique and working well, but each child could only have one designated mother tongue. In addition, the designation mother tongue didn’t mean that it was the child’s strongest language (and often it isn’t), and so there were varying levels of fluency in groups as well. Nonetheless, they knew they had a better programme than most schools, and were addressing the language development needs of as many students as they could manage.

But at this particular meeting, a parent was to raise an issue that would lead to a year of discussions and ultimately, the creation of a completely unique approach to languages in international schools. The parent in question was American, but had lived in France with his children for many years and therefore they were fluent French speakers. However, by the school’s definition of mother tongue, and indeed  by any traditional MT definition, his children did not qualify for the French MT programme.  It became clear during the meeting, and the “after meeting” with concerned parents, that this was not a one-off issue, and was going to become more common, not less. In an increasingly globalised education sector, trying to categorise children’s language abilities and priorities by their parents’ passports is becoming both limiting and often irrelevant.

ISH formed a working group that included senior management, the EAL managing team (Sue Tee, Mindy McCracken, Nikki Welsh), and the head of MT (Lara Rikers). Together, this group spent a year investigating the profoundly complex issues relating to languages generally, and MT language specifically, guided by the powerful Jim Cummins’ quote:

To reject the child’s language in school is to reject the child.

  • Jim Cummins

At the end of this journey, they had new names for languages in their school: home languages, to replace the insufficient term mother tongue, and identity language, to represent languages that are important to children, but not related to their parents or home. In the renewed programme, students can choose up to three languages from these two definitions per year, rather than the former structure of “mother tongue hour”, which was one language per child, chosen when they entered the school. If students choose more than one language, they can switch each term, or between projects. In this way, each student can potentially have support in maintaining both parental languages, as well as an identity language that they have acquired elsewhere.

In March 2017 McCracken and Rikers presented the ISH approach to languages in international schools at the ECIS ESL/MT (now ECIS MLIE) conference in Copenhagen, with the support of Jim Cummins. Now that the ISH Identity Language has been launched in international education I hope (expect!) more schools to start having critical discussions about the language profiles of their students too.

Spotlight on Good Practice: New blog series


In the month of March, I had the privilege of presenting at three international events. The first was the ECIS ESL/MT conference (now the ECIS MLIE group). There I presented on using pedagogical translanguaging to support learning in international education. The second event was the CIS Symposium on Intercultural Learning (Amsterdam), where I presented in the Language as a Pathway to Intercultural Learning strand. My presentation at this event was focused again on translanguaging, this time as a way to bring students’ culture and prior knowledge into the classroom. The final event was the second CIS Symposium, Singapore, where I again presented (for LanguageOne) in the Language strand, with an analysis of models of MT/home language support in international schools, and ways forward for schools who want to engage better on this critical topic.

A recurring point of interest across all three events was the overview of audience members at language-related sessions. On the whole, the audience at these sessions was the “language people” from schools: EAL teachers, language teachers, MT/home language teachers, and mid-level coordinators: EAL coordinators, PYP coordinators, etc. So this leaves the question: Where are the school leaders? Where are the principals and heads of school? They are certainly at these events, but for some reason rarely choose the language-related sessions. This was especially apparent at the CIS Singapore event, which was in a strand-format – all participants stayed in their chosen strand for the two-day event. The strands on global citizenship and developing culturally competent leaders were the two strands where all the leadership-level participants were to be found.

So what’s up with that? Are the language-people not informative enough, funny enough, insightful enough to draw the school leaders? Everyone who attended our strands knows that this is of course not true! What is true, however, is that language is often thought of as a specialist topic in education (international and national). School leadership is often caught up in broader topics that seem to have more importance for the whole than EAL, home languages, other languages. This is a dangerous position to take however, as language is at the heart of everything we do in education; at the centre of identity, culture, communication, and most importantly, learning.

It is hard to argue that we are teaching the whole child when school policy dictates that the students leave their language and culture at the schoolhouse door.

  • J. Cummins et al. (2005)

It is true that language people are not always good at publicity and marketing – we know we have a lot of key information that all teachers, administrators and parents need to know. But we’re not always good at getting our message out there in accessible ways.

In order to do some awareness-raising of the complex and critical issue of languages in schools, I’m starting a new blog series, entitled “Spotlight on good practice“. I’d like to do a regular profile of an activity, teacher, school, leader, program (twice a month), to share what is already happening in our schools that we can be proud of, and hope that this will encourage wider awareness outside the language people of how languages can be used in our schools to either empower or disempower our students, and the resulting effects on culture, character, and learning.

The series will start with examples of good practice from schools I have worked with, but I would be delighted to hear from my readers – parents, teachers, (hopefully) school leaders – about examples of good practice relating to any aspect of languages in schools – EAL/ELL, home languages, host country languages, foreign languages. If you have a story to share, for yourself or for your school or your children’s school, please email me at eowyn@crisfieldeducationalconsulting.com

Looking forward to hearing about all your success stories!