Long-term study suggests ways to help children learn language and develop cognitive skills

June 17, 2014

Examining factors such as how much children gesture at an early age may make it possible to identify and intervene with very young children at risk for delays in speech and cognitive development, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Chicago.

The research by leading early learning scientists looked at from a wide variety of backgrounds, including those from advantaged and disadvantaged families, and those who had suffered brain injury. Their work was published in an article, "New Evidence About Language and Cognitive Development Based on a Longitudinal Study: Hypotheses for Intervention" in the online edition of the American Psychologist. The paper offers evidence-based suggestions, which grew out of the study, for developing diagnostic tools and interventions to enhance language and .

The authors found that although varies according to family income and education levels, not all of the impacts are the same. Although parents from advantaged backgrounds spoke more with their children, there was no difference between advantaged and disadvantaged families in the quality of the word-learning experiences parents gave their children. The study found independent effects of both quantity and quality of input on word learning.

They also found that early gesture – the spontaneous gestures children produce to communicate before and as they are learning to use words – can be used to identify which children with brain injury are likely to go on to develop spoken vocabularies within the typical range, and which children are likely to continue to experience language delay. The importance of the finding is that this diagnosis can be made before language delays appear in speech, thus opening the door for earlier and more targeted interventions.

"We believe that our findings have implications for prediction and diagnosis of later language deficits and for intervention that may improve language skills," explained lead author Susan Goldin-Meadow, the Beardsley Ruml Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology at the University. Goldin-Meadow is one of the nation's leading authorities on language learning and gesture.

By videotaping samples of children's and parents' speech and gestures during interactions at home, the researchers were able to examine in what way and how often gestures were used to communicate, and whether that might help predict the child's language acquisition. The researchers also evaluated whether the parents' speech was related to the children's development of cognition and language.

Susan Levine, the Rebecca Anne Boylan Professor in Education and Society in Psychology at UChicago, was also part of the team. Levine is a specialist on early mathematics development and has done pioneering work in the study of children with brain injuries.

"We are also exploring the impact that parent speech might have on variation in children's cognitive skills. This is a long term project spanning many years that allows us to answer some questions about the natural trajectory of learning and how it's affected by variations in learners and their environment," said Levine.

Two groups of children were observed in this study over four years. The first group included 64 families with children ranging from 14 months to nearly five years old without known physical or cognitive disabilities. Those children were assumed to be typical learners. The families represented a variety of ethnic/racial makeups and levels. The second group included 40 families with a child who had suffered a unilateral brain injury before or around the time of their birth.

The researchers videotaped interactions between the child and their primary caregiver (usually the mother) at home during ordinary daily activities for 90-minutes every four months for a total of 12 visits. The interactions were then transcribed for the analysis of all child and parent speech and gestures.

From that analysis, the researchers were able to develop four hypotheses on language and cognitive development:

  • Charting early gesture has the potential to serve as a diagnostic tool to identify children at risk for language delay.
  • Encouraging children to gesture at very early ages has the potential to increase the size of their spoken vocabularies at school entry.
  • Encouraging caregivers to use more diversified vocabulary and complex syntax has the potential to facilitate children's acquisition of vocabulary and complex syntax.
  • Encouraging caregivers to increase their use of words for number, for the spatial properties of objects, and for abstract relations like similarity has the potential for improving children's understanding of number and spatial thinking, and their ability to make sophisticated comparisons.

"We wanted to examine the influence of both environment and the learner on language, so we included children from a wide socio-economic range to look at variation in learning environments, and children with early brain injuries to study variation in learners," said Goldin-Meadow. "We found that the amount and type of input children with receive from their parents or caregivers plays an even bigger role in syntactic and narrative development (but not vocabulary development) than it does in children without injury," said Levine.

Goldin-Meadow and colleagues said follow-up studies are needed to determine ways to increase the talk that children hear to enhance their and thinking skills. They are hoping that the insights gained from this study and the follow-up studies can be used as a basis for developing educational materials such as videos, computer games and curricula for preschools.

Explore further: Children with brain lesions able to use gestures important to language learning

Related Stories

Children with brain lesions able to use gestures important to language learning

February 20, 2013
Children with brain lesions suffered before or around the time of birth are able to use gestures – an important aspect of the language learning process– to convey simple sentences, a Georgia State University researcher ...

Should parents raise kids bilingually?

March 31, 2014
As one in four Australians is now born outside of Australia, many children are growing up with other languages spoken at home. Should parents speak to their child in their first language, or attempt to speak to them in English?

Gestures research suggests language instinct in young children

June 5, 2014
Young children instinctively use a 'language-like' structure to communicate through gestures.

Giving children non-verbal clues about words boosts vocabularies

June 24, 2013
The clues that parents give toddlers about words can make a big difference in how deep their vocabularies are when they enter school, new research at the University of Chicago shows.

Recommended for you

Even babies can tell who's the boss, UW research says

July 27, 2017
The charismatic colleague, the natural leader, the life of the party - all are personal qualities that adults recognize instinctively. These socially dominant types, according to repeated studies, also tend to accomplish ...

DREAMers at greater risk for mental health distress

July 27, 2017
Immigrants who came to the United States illegally as small children and who meet the requirements of the Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, more commonly known as DREAMers, are at risk for mental health ...

Infants know what we like best, study finds

July 27, 2017
Behind the chubby cheeks and bright eyes of babies as young as 8 months lies the smoothly whirring mind of a social statistician, logging our every move and making odds on what a person is most likely to do next, suggests ...

Negativity, be gone—new online tool can retrain your brain

July 27, 2017
Anxiety and depression can have devastating effects on people's lives. In some cases, the mental disorders lead to isolation, poverty and poor physical health, things that often cascade to future generations.

Research aims to shape more precise treatments for depression in women

July 27, 2017
Among women in the United States, depression is at epidemic levels: Approximately 12 million women in the U.S. experience clinical depression each year, and more than 12 percent of women can expect to experience depression ...

Very preterm birth not associated with mood and anxiety disorders, new research finds

July 27, 2017
Do very-preterm or very-low-weight babies develop anxiety and mood disorders later in life? Julia Jaekel, assistant professor of child and family studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Dieter Wolke, professor ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.