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

10 25 50
 
Description The funded project has resulted in four major outcomes, spanning experimental findings, impact activities, and researcher development.

First, we monitored the kinds of adjectives that a diverse UK cohort of three and four year-olds' hear across a range of interactive contexts, i.e. in free play and during shared reading. We found that adjectives occurred more frequently before nouns than after nouns (e.g. the small cat vs. the cat that's black), although post-noun frames were more frequent for less familiar adjectives. Adjectives occurred much more frequently with a descriptive than a contrastive function (e.g. the beautiful princess vs. the big (not small) cup), especially for less familiar adjectives. Our findings present a partial mismatch between the forms of adjectives found in real-world child-directed speech and those forms that have previously been shown to be more useful for learning. We discuss implications via several presentations and in the following publication:
Davies, C., Lingwood, J. & Arunachalam, S. (2019) Adjective forms and functions in British English child-directed speech. Journal of Child Language, 47, 159-185. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0305000919000242

Second, we measured 3-year-olds' moment-by-moment comprehension of adjectives to inform models of psycholinguistic processing. We used a novel experimental design that allows preschoolers time to demonstrate their abilities in understanding adjective-noun constructions and in contrastive inference (i.e. using the presence of a pair of objects to deduce adjective meaning even before the noun has been heard). We showed that preschoolers are able to use adjectives and nouns to identify objects by the end of the phrase, in a variety of display- and sentence-types. We revealed, contrary to previous research, that they can contrastively infer given a slowed speed of presentation and visually salient size contrasts. Our findings provide evidence for a continuity in the development of pragmatic skills, which do not appear to be linked to children's language proficiency or speed of processing. We discuss implications via several presentations and in the following publication:
Davies, C., Lingwood, J., Ivanova, B., & Arunachalam, S. (2021). Preschoolers' comprehension of adjectives: Evidence for contrastive inference. Cognition, 212. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2021.104707

Third, we ran an extensive programme of impact activities with families, community groups, practitioners in education and health, national third sector organisations, and other stakeholders to identify research priorities in language development, and to implement recommendations based on the scientific results. Overall, we have broadened the awareness of the importance of early language, literacy, and the home learning environment, and have provided practical tools to enable practitioners and caregivers to support children's language development, specifically in vocabulary. In 2021, we delivered a major CPD workshop for 80 educational and clinical practitioners: Children Learning Adjectives. This led to two co-produced articles for researcher-practitioners, currently under review. Other key collaborations, partnerships, and engagement activities can be found in the outcomes and the narrative impact sections.

Fourth, through the activities outlined above, I have become established as a prominent researcher in language development. My profile has grown substantially during the term of the grant. This is evidenced though my position on multiple research groups, membership of professional societies, grant success on several new grants, and through my promotion to Associate Professor in 2018, and promotion application to Professor of Language Development in January 2022 (pending). I have also acquired research management, leadership, and mentoring skills by forming, training, and leading a team (including two PDRAs and two further RAs) to implement the project's scientific and impact objectives. Through specialist research training funded by the award, the research capability of the entire team has been developed, with both PDRAs going on to secure further research positions. Finally, through all of the activities funded by the award, language development research has been strengthened at the University of Leeds. The research lab that I founded and lead (Leeds Child Development Unit) is continuing to expand. It acts as a platform for a range of research projects and initiatives.
Exploitation Route Researchers working on language development across a range of disciplines, i.e. developmental linguists and psychologists working on typical and atypical language development, educational psychologists, and cognitive scientists. This includes researchers working on the form and function of adjectives (i.e. theoretical linguists), and those working on how adjectives are processed by adults (i.e. psycholinguists). Each of these groups will be able to build on the experimental findings to advance our understanding of how adjectives develop in young children, and how they are processed by adults. These groups will also be able to re-use a database of coded, quantitative data via the UK Data Service repository.

Researchers using eyetracking methods in other domains of language processing will benefit from our method of building in extra processing time and more salient visual contrast to experimental stimuli.

Teachers, speech and language therapists, health visitors, family outreach workers, and early years practitioners will benefit from a better understanding of how families use language with their children.
Sectors Education

URL https://sites.google.com/view/children-learning-adjectives
 
Description This work has generated significant impact in children's vocabulary development. My positions on the multi-agency Communication and Language Task Group at Leeds City Council and as regular speaker at the annual Leeds BabyWeek have enabled me to build networks to reach key stakeholders and provide training materials for programmes reaching hundreds of families across the city, delivered by Early Years practitioners and Children's Centre staff. Hosted by Leeds Libraries in 2019-20, I delivered several CPD sessions on supporting early reading for Early Years' practitioners, librarians, and children's centre managers. Over 150 attendees reported a range of positive change in their views and behaviours. I consult on Leeds Libraries' Storybus initiative, advising on effective approaches to facilitating family-based shared reading. As part of the ESRC Social Science Festival in 2019, and in partnership with The Rainbow Factory education centre, I ran a caregiver, practitioner, and child engagement workshop: Talking Together through Tales, Toys, and Tunes for 72 children and 48 adults. Nationally, we consulted on the BBC's Tiny Happy People campaign, for which Lingwood (PDRA) appeared as on-screen language expert. In 2021, I delivered a major CPD workshop for 80 educational and clinical practitioners: Children Learning Adjectives. This led to two co-produced articles for researcher-practitioners, currently under review. Key collaborations, partnerships, and engagement activities can be found in the outcomes section.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Education
Impact Types Policy & public services

 
Description School-Centred Initial Teacher Training video 'Developing vocabulary: Supporting Adjective Learning Across the Curriculum in 5-7 Year-Olds: Research-to-practice resource'
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact Awaiting feedback
 
Description Talking Together through Toys, Tunes, and Tales: ESRC Impact Acceleration Account
Amount £1,750 (GBP)
Funding ID RG.LING.118631.023 
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2019 
End 12/2019
 
Description Dr Cat Davies's partnership with Leeds City Council 
Organisation Leeds City Council
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We have collaborated with Leeds City Council in a number of ways: 1. We consulted on the content of EYFS literacy training for Children's Centre staff across Leeds. 2. Cat Davies is a member of the Communication and Language Task group, comprised of leads from Public Health, Children's Services, Speech and Language Services, Library Services, Children's Speech and Language Therapy Service, Maternity Services and the CCG. The group works on strategies to improve speech, language and communication amongst young children in Leeds and support children and families at this crucial time. For example, we are determining the key messages which could be communicated to professionals and families. 3. Cat Davies consulted on the place of language and communication in the intervention materials for Caring Dads: a support group helping fathers who have been abusive to make positive changes to their behaviour and become better parents.
Collaborator Contribution LCC has provided links to multiple departments to enable us to disseminate our research, e.g. Children's Services, Speech and Language Services, Library Services, Children's Speech and Language Therapy Service, Maternity Services.
Impact In progress
Start Year 2018
 
Description Dr Cat Davies's partnership with the Centre for Applied Education Research 
Organisation Centre for Applied Education Research
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Dr Catherine Davies is a member of the Speech & Language action project group within CAER. The group helps schools access and produce evidence of effective practice, works in partnership with language practitioners to inform the translation of research findings into practice and co-develop a research agenda, and gathers evidence on the factors that influence language development in monolingual and multilingual children.
Collaborator Contribution CAER provides a collaborative network of researchers and practitioners working in speech and language, and therefore supports the progress and dissemination of our research findings and expertise.
Impact NA
Start Year 2019
 
Description Partnership with Red Kite SCITT (School-Centred Initial Teacher Training) 
Organisation Red Kite Alliance
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution We created and delivered a Teacher Training video on adjective learning
Collaborator Contribution Commissioned and disseminated the video
Impact Davies, C. & Zuniga-Montanez, C. (Sept 2021). School-Centred Initial Teacher Training video (commissioned by Birth-to-19 SCITT in Bradford; used by Red Kite SCITT) Developing vocabulary: Supporting Adjective Learning Across the Curriculum in 5-7 Year-Olds: Research-to-practice resource.
Start Year 2021
 
Description Project team's partnership with Leeds Libraries 
Organisation Leeds Central Library
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution 1. We have designed and delivered two CPD workshops on shared book reading and early language for caregivers and professional practitioners, hosted by Leeds Central library (16/07/2019 and 04/03/2020). 2. We have submitted two joint grant applications to evaluate children's reading initiatives within Leeds Library services. 3. We have consulted on the strategy and rollout of two children's mobile libraries.
Collaborator Contribution Leeds libraries have hosted the CPD workshops, and promoted them through their social media channels, as well as to local schools and practitioners.
Impact We have blogged about the first workshop we ran: https://drjamielingwood.com/post/leedslibraries/ The second workshop will be in March 2020 and a new blog post will follow.
Start Year 2018
 
Description Project team's partnership with Leeds Trinity University 
Organisation Leeds Trinity University
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Holding scoping meetings for collaborative work with English / EYFS teacher trainers. Invitation to colleagues at LTU to present at the CPD event 'Children Learning Adjectives' Invitation to colleagues at LTU to co-write a research-to-practice journal article
Collaborator Contribution Samantha Wilkes, Primary Lecturer, Institute of Childhood and Education, LTU gave a presentation at our CPD event 'Children Learning Adjectives' on 21/05/2020. Samantha also co-wrote a journal article: Davies, C., Syrett, K., Taylor, L., Wilkes, S. & Zuniga-Montanez, C. Supporting adjective learning in 5-7 year olds across curriculum areas: Insights from psychological research. Preprint available at https://osf.io/ef2bm
Impact Samantha Wilkes, Primary Lecturer, Institute of Childhood and Education, LTU will give a presentation at our end-of-project workshop on 21/05/2020. https://sites.google.com/view/children-learning-adjectives/home Davies, C., Syrett, K., Taylor, L., Wilkes, S. & Zuniga-Montanez, C. Supporting adjective learning in 5-7 year olds across curriculum areas: Insights from psychological research. Preprint available at https://osf.io/ef2bm
Start Year 2019
 
Description Project team's partnership with the Rainbow Factory 
Organisation The Rainbow Factory
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution The project team designed and ran a workshop in November 2019 called 'Talking Together through Tales, Toys, and Tunes'. The workshop took place at The Rainbow Factory (an interactive storytelling education centre) and was inspired to encourage caregivers and nursery workers to talk together with their children in some new and interesting ways.
Collaborator Contribution The Rainbow Factory co-designed and co-ran the 'Talking Together through Tales, Toys, and Tunes' workshop described above. As part of the planning for this event, they invited local schools and families to take part in the event. They also put on an interactive storytelling performance, focusing on language and communication. Stories were brought to life by performers acting out the story, and encouraging children to participate.
Impact We have written two blog posts about the 'Talking Together through Tales, Toys, and Tunes' event described above: https://blog.leedsforlearning.co.uk/uncategorized/supporting-childrens-language-development-through-tales-toys-and-tunes/ and https://drjamielingwood.com/post/impact/
Start Year 2018
 
Description CPD workshop: The power of sharing books with children 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact 30 librarians and early years practitioners attended a workshop hosted at Leeds libraries, in which Dr. Cat Davies and Dr. Jamie Lingwood explored what shared book reading is and discussed how it varies across families, different types of books and in different settings. We also presented evidence from recent research about the power of shared reading and discussed some common opinions and myths about shared reading.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://drjamielingwood.com/post/leedslibraries/
 
Description CPD Workshop 'Children Learning Adjectives' 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Researchers, teachers, clinicians, and other related professionals working in speech, language, and communication are invited to discuss the place of descriptive language in their work, and explore areas of crossover with others.

From an original list of 121 registrants, 77 delegates attended the online CPD event. Most attendees were clinicians (31%), researchers (24%) or teachers (24%). Four delegates applied for backfill to fund replacement staff costs as they attended the event. Three others requested a certificate of attendance (one teacher/principal, one researcher, and one SLT). Most attendees were based in Leeds or London, but delegates from other parts of the UK and other parts of the world also attended. Beyond the UK, we had delegates from India, USA, Denmark, the Netherlands, Zurich and Kuwait. Three delegates livetweeted the event using the hashtag #adjectivefest. Two of these have large Twitter followings: Dr Lynne Murphy (@lynneguist) with 21.2K and Dr Susan Ebbels (@SusanEbbels) with 6659.

Resources were posted on the event website. These include slides and recordings of all talks, and delegates' questions and suggestions for someone outside of your own sector, and their take-home messages to pass on to their 'home' colleagues. We then formed an advisory board for activities over the following 6 months (primarily the two practitioner reviews). This was comprised of the core research team, invited speakers, plus selected delegates.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://sites.google.com/view/children-learning-adjectives/home
 
Description CPD workshop: Shared book reading to boost children's language and literacy 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Dr Cat Davies and Dr Jamie Lingwood provided a CPD workshop for nursery/early years practitioners and caregivers. The workshop celebrated the crucial role that EYFS practitioners play in children's lives, and informed and empowered its participants to support children's language and literacy development through reading. More broadly, we exchanged ideas about how EYFS literacy training could be developed nationwide.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/whats-on/sanderson-room-3rd-floor/leeds-central-library-sanderson-roo...
 
Description Connecting through language: Supporting infants' language and literacy development 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact As part of Babyweek 2019, Dr. Cat Davies delivered a talk on early communication.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.babyweek.co.uk/babyweek2019
 
Description Expert for BBC's Tiny Happy People campaign 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Dr. Jamie Lingwood was filmed as part of the BBC's Tiny Happy People campaign which will be released in March 2020. In this filming he gave advice on children's language learning and development.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/tiny-happy-people
 
Description School-Centred Initial Teacher Training video 'Developing vocabulary: Supporting Adjective Learning Across the Curriculum in 5-7 Year-Olds: Research-to-practice resource' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Davies, C. & Zuniga-Montanez, C. (Sept 2021). School-Centred Initial Teacher Training video (commissioned by Birth-to-19 SCITT in Bradford; used by Red Kite SCITT) Developing vocabulary: Supporting Adjective Learning Across the Curriculum in 5-7 Year-Olds: Research-to-practice resource.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://leeds365-my.sharepoint.com/personal/lnpcnd_leeds_ac_uk/_layouts/15/onedrive.aspx?id=%2Fperso...
 
Description Sharing books, developing minds: How the magic happens 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact In this talk, Dr. Cat Davies presented research on the importance of Children's Mobile Libraries and the effects of shared reading on children's development. She was invited to deliver this talk as part of the practitioner day for the launch of the Storybuses at Leeds Central library.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL http://leedsforlearning.co.uk/Article/70255
 
Description Talking Together through Tales, Toys, and Tunes 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 72 children and 48 adults attended this event which was hosted at The Rainbow Factory. The event aimed to empower caregivers and nursery staff to support children's language development through conversation and other activities like shared book reading.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.google.com/search?q=talking+together+through+toys+tales+tunes&rlz=1C1CHBF_en-GBGB814GB81...