Introduction to the Italian version of the MacArthur-Bates CDI (“Primo Vocabolario del Bambino”)


Children learn to communicate quickly, first by looking, by actions, by gestures, and then, progressively, they start to wield an instrument more complex and more refined: the language spoken around them, or with them. Both communication and language are important developmental aspects to take into account, either in planning educational interventions, or in diagnosing children at risk of language delay, or with other problems.

How do we evaluate the first steps of communicative and linguistic development? How do we collect reliable data on a 1 or 2 years old child who is just beginning to learn how to communicate in their environment and may feel afraid or nervous in a new or unusual context? How do we evaluate a child’s communicative and linguistic abilities in relation to their “normative” peers?

“Il Primo Vocabolario del Bambino” (the Italian version of MacArthur-Bates CDI -Communicative Developmental Inventory-) questionnaire can fulfill these demands. The questionnaire is quick and handy, it is consistent in collecting data to evaluate communication and language, both in the first years of life and in children that, due to various clinical situations, may be in a delayed developmental stage in relation to their chronological age.

In the last years, MacArthur CDI questionnaires have been used to evaluate children that may have language delay and/or language disorders, and they have been developed and adapted to several languages (English, Spanish, Swedish, Finnish, Japanese, American Sign Language, etc.); it allows to run cross-linguistic researches aiming to uncover differences and similarities in the development of the lexical and morphosintactic abilities that are linked to the specific properties of the different languages in which children are exposed.

Brief explanation of the questionnaires

The goal of “Il Primo Vocabolario del Bambino” questionnaire is to develop an instrument that would yield reliable information on the course of linguistic and communicative development from a child’s first nonverbal gestural signals, through the expansion of early vocabulary, to the beginnings of grammar and the first combinations.

Because language changes so dramatically during the period from 8 to 30 months-old, it was necessary to develop two separate forms: “Gestures and Words” Form for 8 to 17 months-old infants, and “Words and Phrases” Form for 18 to 30 months-old toddlers. The last page of each form share the same form for information about the child and parents’ history.

The normative database of the “Gestures and Words” Form is based on 315 Italian children in between 8 and 17 months of age (Caselli & Casadio, 1995).

The normative database of the “Words and Phrases” Form is based on 386 Italian children in between 18 and 30 months of age (Caselli & Casadio, 1995).

“Gestures and Words” Form

“Gestures and Words” form is designed for use with 8 to 17 months old infants.

Part I contains A and B sections. The first section asks three questions designed to determine whether the child has begun to respond at spoken language at all. The second asks the respondent to indicate which phrases of a 28-item list the child understands.

Part II contains C and D sections. The first one contains two questions: one about the child’s frequency of imitating words and one about the child’s frequency of labeling.

D section is a 408-item vocabulary checklist, organized into 19 semantic categories. Fifteen of these categories are comprised of content words, nouns and predicates (Sound effects and animal sounds, Animal names, Vehicles, Food and drink, Clothing, Body parts, Furniture and rooms, Small household items, Outside things, Peoples, Games and Routines, Verbs, Adjectives and qualities, Adverbs). Additional sections are included for Pronouns, Question words, Prepositions and locations, Articles and quantifiers.

The form is structured so that the parent can specify which words the child understands (Capisce) and which words the child uses and understands (Dice).

Part III of the “Gestures and Words” form, focuses on actions and gestures, offering an opportunity for appraisal of a range of early communicative and representational skills that are not dependent on verbal expression. The 63 gestures are organized into five categories. The item in Section A (First communicative gestures) signal the onset of intentional communication, an important pre-requisite for language. These include the deictic gestures of GIVING, SHOWING, POINTING, and REACHING and a number of conventionalized communicative gestures, e.g., shaking the head as to say “NO” and raising arms to request being picked up.

The items in Section B (“Games and Routines”) form an important part of the early social interactive basis for communicative development. The most common items in Sections A and B typically are seen in a majority of the children well before the end of the first year of life.

Results from a number of studies of preverbal development suggest that the gestures in Section A are strongly predictive of the emergence of meaningful speech.

The child’s performance of the items in Section C (Actions with objects) and Section E (Imitating other adult actions), expresses a growing understanding of the world of objects and the uses of things.

The child’s appropriate use of objects distinguishes these actions from the earlier undifferentiated responses of the younger infant and signal an emerging representational capacity. They were been named “non-verbal naming”.

The items in Section D (Pretending to be a parent) are among the first types of true symbolic gestures, because they imply the ability of transfer to objects (dolls, puppets) representative actions.

A final section of the inventory, Section F (Pretending play with objects) asks whether the child has begun to make pretend substitutions during play. The ability to symbolically transform one object into another is often viewed as the “essence of pretense” and therefore as a significant marker of symbolic competence.

Because such actions are highly individualistic, providing a check-list of possible instances was not feasible. Rather, in Section F parents are requested to recognize this form of pretending play supplied by examples from their own experience.

“Words and Sentences” Form

The “Words and Sentences” form is designed for use with typically developing children between 18 and 30 months of age. It contains three Parts.

Part I contains 670-word yocabulary production checklist, organized into 23 semantic categories. All the categories in the “Gesture and Words” form are included. Sixteen of these categories are comprised of content words, nouns and predicates (Sound effects and animal sounds, Animal names, Vehicles, Food and drink, Clothing, Body parts, Toys, Furniture and rooms, Small household items, Outside things, Places to go, Peoples, Games and Routines, Verbs, Adjectives and qualities, Adverbs of time). Additional categories include Pronouns, Question words, Prepositions, Quantifiers and Articles, Helping and modal verbs, Connective words, Adverbs of place and quantity. The categories Places to go, Helping and modal verbs, Connective words, Adverbs of time, were not included in “Gesture and Words” form.

The vocabulary checklist is followed by six questions about the frequency of the child’s references to the past, future, and absent objects and events. These advances in the spatial and temporal decontextualization of language have often been noted to occur late in the single-word period of language development and are viewed by many investigators as another important index of the child’s emerging capacity to use language in a representative way.

Part II “How children use grammar” is designed to assess morphological and syntactic development: plural of nouns (biscotto-biscotti); gender and number adjectives’ flexion (piccolo, piccola, piccoli, piccole); singular and plural verbal conjugations (mangio-mangi-mangia-mangiamo…).

Part III “How children use phrases” starts with the question: “Does your child begin to say multiword utterances?” If the parent answers “Not yet”, stop here; if the parent answers “Yes”, they have to write down three examples of the longest sentences the child has said recently. Like the section on pretend play on the infant form, this is the only open-ended, qualitative information request on the toddler form.

In the “Complexity” section, a forced-choice recognition format is used, asking parents to choose which member of each of 37 sentence pairs best reflects the child’s present speech level. In each case, the second member of each pair is the more advanced form. Some examples are provided to guide parents in recognizing the sentences that are more similar to their child’s.

To provide an adequate developmental range, the items were selected to evaluate production of:

  • nuclear sentences (from 1 to 10), with one predicate and its arguments (from 1 to 3). There are sentences with 1 argument (e.g. “La pappa scotta” The food is hot), with 2 arguments (e.g. “Io mangio la pappa” I eat the food) and with 3 arguments (e.g. “Do la caramella alla bimba” I give the candy to the baby);
  • complex sentences (from 11 to 19), in which adverbial modifier (e.g. “Scrivo con la penna” I write by pen) or inserted sentences (e.g. “Papà ha detto che non si mangia la caramella” Daddy said that you must not eat the candy), extend the nuclear structure;
  • binuclear sentences (from 20 to 37), in which the utterance is two or more linked coordinate (e.g. “Mi metto le scarpe e dopo vado via” I wear my shoes and then I go out) or subordinate sentences (e.g. “Il bimbo piange perché è caduto” The child is crying because he fell).

The section “Way to express oneself” provides some example-items investigating child’s use of pronouns (He is sleeping/The dog is sleeping).

How to administer and fill the inventory

To ensure the reliability of the parents’ compilation, the delivery of the inventory will be an occasion for reading together the inventory and for briefly explaining it.

It is very important that the parents should observe for some days the behavior of their child before beginning to fill the inventory.

Usually, parents are not used to pay specific attention to a number of communicative forms of their child, such as non-verbal signals, or comprehension of single words.

Moreover, for people that are not experts, it is not always easy to notice some aspects of language, like the name-adjective agreement or the use of morphological complete sentences, and so on.

Last, because language changes so dramatically in early months of life, it is important that parents fill the inventory within one week, in order to provide a coherent profile of the child in relation to their development stage.

When the parents return in the inventory, please try to review together the filled inventory, to verify its correctness in all its parts. This is particularly necessary with families of low socio-economic status, or with families who might be distressed by the discovery of a deficit in the development of their child.

The mean time of filling the forms is about 20 - 40 minutes, depending on the child’s communicative level and their age.

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