Association News

Published on September 27th, 2019


Assessing the Speech and Language of First Nation Children: A helpful checklist

By Kelsi Breton

First Nation communities are one the most culturally and linguistically diverse populations across Canada. There are over 600 unique First Nations in Canada, speaking roughly 50 different First Nation languages within 11 different language families1,9. As such, they have been deemed a ‘special interest group’ by the College of Audiologists and Speech-Language Pathologists Ontario (CASLPO). Not only are they a very diverse population; but data from the 2016 census revealed that the Indigenous Peoples of Canada (First Nations, Inuit and Métis), are the youngest and fastest growing population in the country. One-third of First Nations people were aged 14 years or younger in 20169.

As speech-language pathologists (S-LPs), it is imperative to consider the diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds of the children we assess. However, very little research exists on First Nations English Dialects (FNED), cultural communication styles and language development1. Additionally, every nation differs from coast to coast to coast. Assessment tools used by S-LPs do not account for these differences and have been standardized on non-First Nations Canadian children4. This approach raises concern regarding the validity and appropriateness of using these tools with First Nations children3.

S-LPs may also be unaware of existing cultural and dialectal differences within the community.

Ball & Bernhardt (2008) provide a comprehensive review of phonological and phonetic characteristics of FNED and differences in morphosyntax, vocabulary usage and discourse across different First Nation groups. These differences can give rise to difficulties in distinguishing between communication differences versus disorders1. Peltier (2011) reported that lack the of familiarity with cultural communication styles and features of Anishinaabe FNED often lead to misidentifying typical patterns as disordered. As a result, the assessment process may be underestimating the language abilities of First Nations children and accounting for the large representation of First Nations children requiring speech and language services4,8.

A survey study by Ball and Lewis (2011) revealed that 67% of S-LP respondents did not feel that their pre-service training or continuing education opportunities prepared them appropriately to work with Indigenous families. S-LPs also noted that what they did know about working with Indigenous families, they had to “learn on the job”2.  Furthermore, 70% noted that Western-based approaches in practice are not appropriate when working with Indigenous families2.

As the Indigenous population continues to grow quickly, and culturally appropriate assessment tools have yet to be developed, what can we as S-LPs do to address the cultural and linguistic diversity of First Nations children in our assessments?


A literature review revealed many strategies for S-LPs to consider when completing assessments with First Nations children:

1.Review best practice guidelines for assessing bilingual and culturally and linguistically diverse (BCLD) children3

2. Engage and establish partnerships within the community1,7

  • Connect with cultural liaisons often (if available)
  • Attend community events1
  • Deepen your knowledge of the community and their cultural values and practices 2,3

3. Collaborate with community members

  • Involve community members in the assessment process, where possible, to help interpret information3
  • Review current assessment tools and methods together and discuss ways to modify assessment practices to make them more culturally appropriate2
  • Learn and discuss ideal language, discourse and interaction styles in the community1,2,7

4. Work collaboratively with Indigenous families in every step of the assessment – involve primary caregivers directly in assessments,2

  • Build trusting, respectful relationships with Indigenous families
  • Show that their language participation is valuable5
  • Learn the families’ views on language development1
  • Family partnerships can help us to better prepare, understand and respond to transition issues between home and school5

5. Development of an assessment model involving multiple home and clinic visits to observe the child’s communication in multiple environments7. 

 6. Assess language abilities using a variety of different measures3

  • Standardized tests are not standardized on First Nations children and so they are inherently biased3
  • Combine standardized results with other assessment measures such as: questionnaires and rating scales, child-centered assessment approaches, criterion-referenced and dynamic assessments, language sampling and holistic approaches such as curriculum-, portfolio- and routines-based assessments2,3
  • Multiple communication measures help to minimize bias and better capture and reflect the child’s skills 3

7. Allow up to half an hour of non-verbal play before assessment1. 

 8. Complete language comprehension tasks before language production tasks1

 9. Adopt a “wait-and-see” approach for FNED differences identified in articulation assessment7

  • Review the phonetic repertoires of your community’s language to help anticipate dialectal differences that may arise upon speech assessment
  • For example, substitutions, voicing errors and sounds may be used interchangeably and occur often7
  • Children may start school with FNED phonetic repertoires, which often do not include all sounds and vowels found in Standard English7
  • Exposure to Standard English in class will gradually expand their repertoire7
  • “Wait-and-see”: do not immediately recommend therapy. Re-assess children with these errors in one year; in the meantime, educate teachers on FNED dialect differences7
  • Begin speech therapy if differences have not dissipated to align with standard English upon re-assessment7. 

 10. Assess narratives using storytelling

  • A circle setting and a talking stone is an effective and culturally appropriate way to bring children and community members together6
  • It is traditionally used in many First Nation communities6
  • This can be easily implemented in the classroom6

Clinical Implications

Results from the literature identified multiple variables at play that may influence the assessment of speech and language of First Nations children. Many common themes emerged, including the need to modify assessment approaches and a call for the development of more culturally appropriate assessment tools, or an assessment tool specifically designed for First Nations children. Until then, S-LPs must continue modifying their assessment approach when working with First Nation families.



  1. Ball, J., & Bernhardt, B. M. (2008). First Nations English dialects in Canada: Implications

for speech‐language pathology. Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics22(8), 570-588.

  1. Ball, J., & Lewis, M. (2011). “An Altogether Different Approach”: Roles of Speech-

Language Pathologists in Supporting Indigenous Children’s Language Development. Canadian Journal of Speech-Language Pathology & Audiology35(2).

  1. Eriks-Brophy, A. (2014). Assessing the Language of Aboriginal Canadian Children:

Towards More Culturally Valid Approach. Canadian Journal of Speech-Language Pathology & Audiology38(2).

  1. Findlay, L. C., & Kohen, D. E. (2013). Measures of language outcomes using the

Aboriginal Children’s Survey. Health reports24(1), 10.

  1. Peltier, S. (2017). An Anishinaabe Perspective on Children’s Language Learning to Inform

“Seeing the Aboriginal Child”. Language and Literacy19(2), 4-19.

  1. Peltier, S. (2014). Assessing Anishinaabe Children’s Narratives: An Ethnographic

Exploration of Elder’s Perspectives. Canadian Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology38(2), 174-193.

  1. Peltier, S. (2011). Providing Culturally Sensitive and Linguistically Appropriate Services:

An Insider Construct. Canadian Journal of Speech-Language Pathology & Audiology35(2).

  1. Sterzuk, A. (2008). Whose English counts? Indigenous English in Saskatchewan

schools. McGill Journal of Education/Revue des sciences de l’éducation de McGill43(1), 9-19.

  1. Statistics Canada. (2017). Aboriginal Peoples in Canada: Key Results from the 2016

Census. Retrieved from


About the Author

Kelsi Breton is a graduate student of Mi’kmaq ancestry and is in her final year of the speech-language pathology program at Western University. Prior to her studies at Western, Kelsi was an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in Thailand and online for South Korean students. During her time at Western, she has completed placements in both Anishinaabe (Whitedog and Grassy Narrows) and Mi’kmaq (Elsipogtog) communities.

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