Children's experience, understanding, and use of adjectives across the socioeconomic spectrum.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Sch of Languages, Cultures and Societies

Abstract

Children need a solid command of adjectives and other forms of descriptive language (e.g. adverbs) to communicate successfully. At school, adjectives are explicitly taught as a way for children to develop their narrative abilities and language complexity. Adjectives are essential for describing and differentiating. They can increase vocabulary, which is highly predictive of children's subsequent achievement, i.e. children who arrive at school with good language skills have better chances at school, better chances of entering higher education, and better economic skills in adulthood (Blanden, 2006).

However, children are unable to use adjectives flexibly until around four years of age, a late stage compared to the acquisition of other open word classes. Despite their clear importance and relatively late appearance, adjectives have received little attention by researchers. Crucially, adjectives may present particular challenges to children with or at risk of language delay (Ricks & Alt, 2016), yet speech and language therapy has not typically focused on this aspect of language.

This project will transform our understanding of how young children experience adjectives and how they use that input in their own developing speech. By examining children's psycholinguistic processing within its social context, we will reveal how socioeconomic background affects developmental mechanisms, integrating research strands previously kept separate. An integrated approach is vital for fully understanding the challenges children face when acquiring adjectives. Our findings will enable us to identify the very best ways of boosting children's language at home and at school, across the socioeconomic spectrum. In a series of experiments, I will survey the descriptive language that children hear, measure 3-year-olds' comprehension of a range of adjectives using state of the art eyetracking methods, develop an innovative method which enables laboratory-grade measurement of children's language processing in response to their caregivers' naturalistic speech, and evaluate the effectiveness of a randomised controlled family-based language intervention. With community groups, practitioners, and national organisations, I will use the findings to co-produce accessible materials for promoting language in children from a range of backgrounds.

Children's language experience and skills vary widely as a function of their socioeconomic background. Children from the lowest UK income quintile can be up to 19 months behind their more affluent peers in vocabulary development on school entry (Sutton Trust, 2012), and the increased risk of early language problems for children growing up in socioeconomically disadvantaged families has been well documented. Although the impact of socioeconomic factors on other aspects of language development is clear, their effect on adjective acquisition has not yet been explored. Some of the challenges posed by adjectives may be disproportionate for children from low socioeconomic backgrounds, whose word learning and sentence comprehension difficulties are more likely to hinder their ability to handle descriptive language. More positively, research suggests that the language that caregivers use with their children can help: the more adjectives they use, and the more explicitly they use them in sentences, the more effective their children's use of adjectives will be.

Findings will have important theoretical and methodological implications for research in language development. They will also have significant societal impact. With an expert advisory board, I will use my research findings to co-produce targeted recommendations to families, practitioners, and policymakers working with children facing challenges with descriptive language. The project also offers numerous opportunities for my development as a leading international researcher in language acquisition, and for the project team in their career development.

Planned Impact

The project will provide:
-Empirical evidence about how the language that children hear affects their own language abilities
-Evidence-based advice about how to design language-boosting interventions for young children across socioeconomic groups

Moving from local through to national impact with the project's lifespan, outcomes will benefit:
1. Children and parents/carers. Parents play a central role in children's language development, but may not know the best way of interacting directly with their children to intensify opportunities for speaking and listening (Bercow, 2008). Similarly, the extent to which early language influences children's later development is not widely known. Both these messages will be communicated to families via their visits to the Child Development Unit, via post-study updates, and a report containing easy-to-follow guidance about language-boosting activities.
2. Practitioners in early years education, e.g. Early Years Foundation Stage staff; Children's Centres. The UK government recognises the value of high quality early education, yet providing language-rich environments in early years settings can be challenging. We will provide clear advice about how to enrich the language that children hear, and how to engage parents to maximise language-building opportunities. We will also offer practical support to staff and parents by delivering tailored sessions about language development and school readiness. With the National College for Teaching & Leadership, we will discuss how the workshops could be embedded in the curriculum for nursery professional qualifications. This will be foundational for improved oral language development in initial teacher training, as recommended in the Nov 2016 meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Speech and Language Difficulties.
3. Practitioners in healthcare, e.g. health visitors, family outreach workers, speech and language therapists. Language interventions have the potential to boost language in children at risk of language delay (i.e. those low on the socioeconomic spectrum or those diagnosed with speech, language and communication needs). However, the most effective way of using them across different groups is not yet clear. Together with clinical members of the advisory board, we will co-produce a report detailing best practice in this area. A co-authored practitioner review article will also be published, providing details of the experimental findings and how they apply to practice.
4. Local groups specialising in play-based communication. Grassroots groups can offer creative approaches to implementing research findings, maximising engagement in end users. However, they typically lack the networks required to connect with research. Throughout the lifecycle of the project, we will explore mutual benefits of our work with these groups.
5. Third sector groups promoting language and literacy. We will provide data about the effect of shared reading or other forms of language play on language development. This will inform the work of national organisations such as The Communication Trust, whose 400 Communication Ambassadors work with 8,000 families in disadvantaged areas of England, sharing information about how families can best help their children's language.
6. Policymakers seeking to improve the life chances of UK children (e.g. Local Authorities, local commissioners of health services, All-Party Parliamentary Groups and secretariats, the Education Select Committee). The preschool years are recognised as being crucial in determining later life chances, with early interventions yielding savings to the UK's economy (Grint & Holt, 2011). Starting with The Communication Trust's What Works database, we will submit recommendations from WP3 to the evidence base of interventions supporting children's communication.
7. Members of the public will benefit from a better understanding of language development via public engagement events.

Publications

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