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Early learnings from ERLI tool

Caroline Jones, IYIL, Learning, Western Sydney University

Date: 10 October 2019

Speech pathologists and other professionals still have relatively few tools for assessing and researching Indigenous children’s language development. In response to this need, a Western Sydney University (WSU) team has developed the ERLI (Early Language Inventory) checklist, with and for Indigenous families, starting in the Katherine region of the Northern Territory.

The team, with current members Jaidine Fejo, Eugenie Collyer, Chantelle Khamchuang and Centre Chief Investigator Caroline Jones, co-designed ERLI for Indigenous families who are multilingual and/or multidialectal. ERLI is a checklist of first words and hand signs, and asks the parent how they say each item at home. Their home languages could be a Kriol variety, Aboriginal ways of using English and/or traditional or other language(s).

WSU researchers Jaidine Fejo and Chantelle Khamchuang show how to do the ERLI in the training video.

The checklist has been in development since 2014 with input from local families in the Katherine region, supported by the Sunrise Health Service and The Smith Family. It consists of 120 items (112 words and 8 hand signs) which are familiar to local Indigenous families, and includes ‘baby talk’ words.

Caroline says that by using ERLI in a strengths-based conversation with a professional, parents can report as experts on their child’s development in first words and hand signs in the first three years of life.

“On ERLI, local Indigenous children around Katherine do well,” say Caroline. “Children whose parents have no concerns about their speech and language development understand the first few ERLI items around one year of age and produce all the items by three. ERLI can help parents and speech pathologists accurately tell if a child has a real speech or language problem, because it assesses the child in the language(s) or dialect(s) they speak at home.”

In Sydney, the ERLI team is collaborating with communities and organisations interested to try out ERLI with urban Aboriginal families. Chantelle Khamchuang, WSU Honours student and Dharug community member, is finding that Aboriginal parents in Sydney identify familiar items, like ‘tidda’ (sister) and ‘kaka’ (dirty, dangerous). “They also celebrate some words they use with their children at home that come from traditional languages, like Wiradjuri”, says Chantelle.

ERLI workshop participants, Campbelltown, May 2019

Codesign workshop participants in Campbelltown NSW, May 2019: Dr Teresa Ching (NAL), Samantha Harkus (Hearing Australia), Danielle Saul & Mel Baxter (Waranwarin, Tharawal Child and Family Centre), A/Prof Caroline Jones (WSU), Sanna Hou and Michelle Saetre-Turner (NAL).

Beyond research, ERLI has uses in health and education. Spoken language development requires good hearing, and since many Indigenous children experience early chronic otitis media, the checklist has attracted the attention of Hearing Australia and National Acoustic Laboratories (NAL). The organisations have been funded by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to produce resources to help early childhood educators to spot and support Indigenous children with hearing loss. The NAL-Hearing Australia-WSU collaboration saw co-design workshops with Aboriginal professionals in health and education from NSW, NT and Queensland to improve the training resources.

With Wurli-Wurlinjang Aboriginal Health Service (NT) and Tharawal Aboriginal Corporation (NSW) the team cross-validated ERLI with scales for hearing (PLUM) and talking (HATS). “Our analyses are still in progress, but an immediate positive impact was that children on waiting lists for audiology in Katherine received assessment and follow-up,” says Katherine-based linguist Eugenie Collyer.

ERLI is also being adopted by speech pathologists around Australia and the WSU team presented at the Speech Pathology Australia National Conference in Brisbane in June. “It was fun, we were mobbed!” says Jaidine Fejo, Aboriginal Project Officer. “I was shocked when they all lined up wanting an ERLI kit from us.”

ERLI’s future looks promising as it continues to be rolled out by practitioners. “For example, we’re excited that CoEDL member Denise Angelo has recently used ERLI as a hands-on tool to teach speech pathology students at Central Queensland University about home language diversity,” Caroline says.

ERLI is an authorised adaptation of the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventory (CDI Words & Gestures, short form). CDI checklists have been adapted worldwide into many languages, and are valid and reliable measures of a child’s development. ERLI is now available in paper and app form which are supported by a user manual. App users can opt in or out of contributing responses anonymously to the research effort. For updates, check out the ERLI Facebook page.


ERLI (Early Language Inventory) [PDF]

ERLI (Early Language Inventory) Manual [PDF]

Eugenie Collyer, Caroline Jones and Jaidine Fejo, at the Speech Pathology Australia National Conference

Eugenie Collyer, Caroline Jones and Jaidine Fejo, at the Speech Pathology Australia National Conference.

(Main image: Hearing check during collaboration with Hearing Australia, NAL and Wurli-Wurlinjang Health Service in 2018.)

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  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
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  • Western Sydney University