Made possible

Dutch for all Children

Expats, refugees and jobseekers from abroad: they all bring their children with them when they come to the Netherlands. It is important for these children to learn the Dutch language. To that end, they also receive extra language classes before they  enrol in regular education. The teachers in this special language education are eager to know how much linguistic progress these children are making. The problem is that the existing instruments for observation were created for children who speakDutch as their first language. Linguists Dr Manuela Pinto and Dr Shalom Zuckerman want to develop a new instrument specifically for children who are new to the Netherlands.

Our instrument is intended to enable an easier, more accurate assessment of whether a child is ready to switch to regular education.

Foto Shalom Zuckerman
Shalom Zuckerman
Utrecht University

Zuckerman: ‘When a child from a Syrian background has been in the Netherlands for six months, how many words can you expect that child to know? And is that number the same for a child with a different first language, such as Polish? Does it make a difference if the child is a refugee or if their parents are expats? Our instrument is intended to enable easier, more accurate assessment of whether a child is ready to switch to regular education.’ This gives the teachers better insight into the linguistic progress these children are making with Dutch as a second language (NT2) while also offering the scientists better insight into which social and cultural factors play a role in their language development.

Colouring pink elephants

The method Pinto and Zuckerman plan to use builds on the ‘Colouring-book method’ previously developed by the duo. The researchers previously applied that method in ‘Wealth of colour’, anobservation instrument for vocabulary development introduced by Boom Uitgevers and suitable for use in years 1 through 4. Pinto: ‘The children are given colouring sheets and asked to colour the table in red, for example. Or to colour in the sheet to illustrate a sentence, such as “the pink elephant is scratching the green elephant”. This offers a playful way for the teachers to see how far along the children are in their language development. But because the vocabulary lists used by the researchers were developed for Dutch children, they are not always suitable for NT2 children. The researchers now plan to compile vocabulary lists for this target group. In doing so, they are consulting with teachers from language-training schools. Pinto: ‘We ask them which words they use. They told us that they don’t teach the children the names of  all the different trees. Their approach is pragmatic: the most important thing is for the children to become self-reliant in the Netherlands. For instance, they don’t distinguish between an oak, a beech or a fir — a tree is a tree.’

Doing something good for society

This observation instrument will also make it possible to offer children better guidance and support.  Pinto: ‘For example: a teacher might use our data to check a given pupil’s progress throughout the school  year, to confirm that the pupil is ready to enrol in regular education. It can also help them make sure that children who came to the Netherlands under different circumstances, and with different first languages, aren’t simply lumped together in one group.’ The researchers need money to make this project a reality. ‘We need advice from a methodologist in order to calculate the predictive value of various factors. We also need new test material, like colouring sheets and recordings, as well as assistants to gather the data at schools’, Zuckerman says. According to Pinto, the researchers are extremely enthusiastic about the project: ‘Because it makes our field less abstract and theoretical. Our knowledge is being used to do something good for society — a society that is becoming increasingly multilingual.’

Funding through fundraising

The Friends of the UU Faculty of Humanities fund and the Utrecht University Fund are dedicated to raising the funding needed for this study. The crowdfunding campaign runs through November 2021. Thanks to financial commitments from the Janivo Foundation, the Elise Mathilde Fund foundation and the funds’ joint working group on Refugees & Education, the research project will be able to start before this academic year is out.

Foto Shalom Zuckerman

Dr. Shalom Zuckerman explores questions such as ‘how do children acquire language?’ and works to improve the methodology used to study language.

Foto Manuela Pinto

Dr. Manuela Pinto is studying the development of language comprehension in children and methods for testing linguistic knowledge.

Lend a hand!

You can do your part to help Zuckerman and Pinto’s  research as well. The ‘Dutch for all children’ project is among the causes selected for the Utrecht University Fund’s annual Pay it Forward campaign. Personalised language education contributes to equal opportunities for every child. Visit or donate directly:


Spending Prof. Van der Maas’ legacy

Joop van der Maas
Joop van der Maas (1936-2020)

Last year, the Utrecht University Fund received a very special legacy from Professor Joop van der Maas, who was affiliated with Utrecht University for the entirety of his academic career. Influenced by the circumstances of his own life, his work always included particular attention for students who were struggling in some way. He helped them when possible, and thanks to his legacy — which will be well over one million euros after settlement — the Utrecht University Fund will be able to carry on this important task on his behalf for many years to come.

The Utrecht University Fund will place the money in the Right to Learn Fund and will expand the scope of the Fund’s objective so that even more young people can turn to it for aid. From this year on, the Right to Learn Fund is open to prospective students, current students and young researchers. They can request financial assistance from the Fund in cases when a lack of resources presents an obstacle to their further academic development. The Right to Learn Fund also focuses on refugees and other disadvantaged groups in order to help them make the most of their talents.

For more information on how the various objectives of the Utrecht University Fund contribute to equal opportunities for students, visit