Our research

Current studies

ManyBabies (Dr Cat Davies)

Throughout summer 2017, we recruited families with monolingual children aged 12 – 15 months to take part in a project about children’s responses to different kinds of speech. 

Research has shown that babies and young children pay more attention to speech with higher pitch and exaggerated intonation. This kind of speech is sometimes called child-directed speech, motherese, or baby talk. Evidence suggests that child-directed speech can help early language learning, e.g. by helping babies learn words and phrases, or by helping them realise that the speaker is talking to them, rather than to someone else in the room.

The aim of the project is to understand the strength of this effect, how it might vary between babies, between languages and cultures, and how it might change as babies grow. We are inviting families into our Unit so babies can show us how much (or how little) they prefer different speech sounds. We’ll do this by recording how long they look at a screen while listening to sounds. This part of the visit should take no longer than 10 minutes, but with some warm-up play and some discussion with parents, the whole visit should last around 30 – 45 minutes. Parents remain with their child throughout and  will receive £7.50 for their time, plus modest travel reimbursements.

If you’d like to know more about the study, or if you’d like to sign up to take part, please contact Dr Cat Davies by email lcdu@leeds.ac.uk or by phone on 0113 34 33564 (please leave a message) and we will send information to you. Alternatively you can sign up by filling in the webform at http://leedscdu.org/get-involved/registration/

This study has been approved by the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures Research Ethics Committee at the University of Leeds (reference number PVAR 16-070; approved 10/05/2017).


Is bedtime the best time for shared storybook reading? (Dr Anna Weighall and Dr Hannah Nash)

Throughout summer 2017, we recruited families with children aged 3-4 years  to take part in our project about the best time for parents to read to preschool children to help them learn new words.

Research has shown that school age children remember new spoken words they have been taught better after a night’s sleep and that nursery age children remember more new words from stories read by a researcher after they have had a nap. We are adapting this research so that it is more like real life, with parents reading stories to their children. We want to know when is the best time of the day for parents to read with their children to maximise their learning and memory for new words.

We will provide instructions and two story books for you to read with your child. We ask that you read one story before bedtime one week and then the other story in the morning another week. Each story contains two novel words and after you have read the story with your child we will ask you to see what they have learnt about it. We will ask you to do this immediately and then again after a delay. The instructions will provide all the information about how to do this.

If you would like to know more about this study and to take part please contact Dr Anna Weighall by email A.R.Weighall@leeds.ac.uk or by phone 0113 3435689 and we will send information to you.

This project has been approved by the University of Leeds, School of Psychology Research Ethics Committee (reference number 17-0192; date approved: 04-Jul-2017).


Which adjective forms, frequencies, and functions do 3-year-olds experience in child-directed speech?  (Dr Cat Davies and Dr Sudha Arunachalam, with undergraduate RAs Ellinor Hull, Charissa Lim, Catherine Porter, and Anna Richardson)

As a pilot study for a larger project on children’s use of adjectives, we are measuring children’s experience of descriptive language during shared reading and in naturalistic play.  This will allow us to test the  hypothesis that children experience lots of descriptive adjectives e.g. ‘the handsome prince’ (where there is only one prince) rather than contrastive adjectives, which distinguish one object from another, e.g. ‘the big teddy’. By analysing language in popular children’s books, child-directed speech during parent-child shared book-reading, and child-directed speech during free play, we found that a large majority of adjectives were indeed descriptive, not contrastive. This is the first stage in understanding the forms, frequencies and functions of the adjectives that children are exposed to. Watch this space for the next steps!


Features of child-directed speech used with children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (Rachael Staunton)

In the existing literature, correlational relationships have been identified between particular aspects of parental child-directed speech and the incidence of certain elements of their child’s speech, both in typical and atypical populations. Although in the autistic population, these relationships have not yet been identified as causal, more research is needed in this area to reaffirm existing findings, and further investigate the relationships between the language which parents use and the language which children with autism go on to develop. If causal relationships can be identified, it could have clinical and therapeutic applications for children with ASD.

This project will focus on particular aspects of the child-directed speech, such as questions and the use of cognitive state terms (i.e. parents’ references to internal processes and feelings), and will analyse any differences between the language environments of typically developing children and children with ASD.


A randomised control trial to test the effect of parents’ inference-eliciting questions during shared book reading on listening comprehension (Dr Cat Davies, Dr Michelle McGillion and Dr Danielle Matthews)

The aim of this project is to test whether training parents to ask their children questions about ‘unspoken’ aspects of a story can help 4-year-olds from a range of socio-economic backgrounds understand language.


Look before you speak (Dr Cat Davies and Dr Helene Kreysa)

This study measures how much detail children give when describing objects for someone else. The five year olds often missed out crucial information from their descriptions, e.g. the jar to refer to the closed jar in the display to the right, whereas the seven year olds usually gave all the required detail. When we looked at the five year olds’ eye movements using an eye tracker, the fact that they looked at a contrast object (the open jar) or not didn’t affect whether they gave full descriptions. Amongst the seven year olds, the more they looked at the contrast object, the more informative their referring expressions were, just like adults. The paper reporting this study is currently under review.


Completed studies

Bilingual children’s semantic-pragmatic comprehension of quantifiers (Dr Haifa Alatawi)

My PhD thesis consisted of two novel studies. The first study explored the pragmatic abilities of English-Arabic bilingual and monolingual children in understanding quantifiers like ‘some’ and ‘most’, and how these related to the children’s cognitive abilities, particularly their executive functions. A bilingual advantage was found only on the pragmatic (not cognitive) tasks, although cognitive performance had strong effects on pragmatics. The second study aimed to establish how numbers and quantifiers are associated. It showed that children’s ability to produce sets representing numerical values had a significant effect on comprehension of ‘some’. I am currently preparing these results for publication.

Referential communication and executive function skills in bilingual children (Prof Cecile De Cat and Prof Ludovica Serratrice)

This experimental study focused on young bilingual children with unbalanced exposure to two languages.
It investigated (i) the relationship between executive function skills (cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control and working memory), socio-economic status and language experience, (ii) the impact of bilingual experience on proficiency in the language of schooling, and (iii) children’s ability to make referential choices appropriate to their listener’s information needs.

As part of that project, we designed an online calculator of bilingual language experience (based on a simplified version of the Utrecht Bilingual Language Exposure Calculator UBiLEC – Unsworth 2013), including a composite measure of language exposure and use (the BPI) which we used as a predictor in our analyses.  Further information about the project, as well as the calculator, can be accessed by clicking on the project title above.

Overinformative children (Dr Cat Davies, Dr Napoleon Katsos, Dr Clara Andrés Roqueta, and Prof Courtenay Norbury)

This set of studies investigated how children referred to objects on a screen; did they give enough information, just the right amount, or too much? When they listened to sentences, were they able to tell if a speaker was giving the right amount of information? We found that five year olds frequently underinformed, but were able to tell when their speakers were doing the same. We also ran this study with children with Specific Language Impairment, and found that they could also tell us when speakers were ‘misbehaving’ in the same way, though to a lesser extent than their typically developing peers. This work was published in Lingua and Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

Discourse competence in young children (Prof Cecile De Cat)

This was experimental study of the discourse competence of preschool children. It demonstrated that the linguistic competence underlying the encoding of information is in place from at least 2;6 years of age. This includes the ability to identify and encode topics, and the use of definiteness and structural distinctions for reference establishment and maintenance. Children’s ‘errors’ were shown to be caused by cognitive (rather than linguistic) limitations.