Our research

Current studies


Would you like to take part in our latest research study? We’re looking for families with monolingual children aged between three-and-a-half and four years old (42 – 48 months) to take part in a new study about how preschoolers understand sentences. The children should be within the age range between July and September 2019.

Research shows that adults use information about the world to interpret sentences quickly during listening, but we don’t yet know whether children’s understanding works in the same way. The aim of our project is to understand how children comprehend different types of adjectives, and how this relates to their other language skills.

We’re inviting families to the Child Development Unit at the University of Leeds so children can show us how they interpret descriptions of pictures. We’ll do this by recording how long they look at a screen while listening to speech. This part of the visit should take no longer than 20 minutes, but with some warm-up play and discussion with parents, the whole visit usually lasts around an hour. Caregivers stay with their child throughout and will receive £10 for their time and travel expenses.

If you’d like to know more about the study, or if you’d like to sign up to take part, please contact Dr Jamie Lingwood by email lcdu@leeds.ac.uk or by phone on 0113 343 7836 (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.


The Paediatric ADHD Sleep Study – A study of sleep and its impact on the daytime functioning, cognitive development, academic attainment and wellbeing in children with ADHD (Anna Hamilton)

Around 5% of children have difficulty controlling their attention and behaviour; this is known as Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Children with ADHD are likely to do less well at school and experience later mental health problems. Furthermore, they often have sleep difficulties. Given that sleep is important for development and wellbeing, we are interested in the role that sleep difficulties play in the attention and behaviour problems that children with ADHD struggle with.

In our study we are looking to recruit a group of children with ADHD and a group of typically developing children of a similar age. We will see each child at two points in time, one year apart. The first time we see them we will measure the quality of their sleep using electrodes and by asking questions about their sleep habits. We will also measure the severity of their ADHD symptoms, daily activity levels, their behaviour, thinking skills, academic skills such as literacy and maths and their emotional wellbeing. The second time we see each child will we again ask them questions about their sleep and measure the severity of their ADHD symptoms, their behaviour, thinking skills, academic skills such as literacy and maths and their emotional wellbeing. We will then test whether the quality of their sleep at the first time point influences growth in the other measures over time. We are investigating the sleep difficulties children with ADHD face and what part they play in the attention and behaviour problems that children with ADHD struggle with. Knowing this, we can teach the parents of the children with ADHD ways in which to help their children get a better nights sleep.


Completed studies

What kinds of adjectives do children hear in child-directed speech during free play and shared book reading? (Dr Cat Davies, Dr Jamie Lingwood, and Dr Sudha Arunachalam; 2018 – 2021)

We recently ran a series of studies measuring children’s experience of descriptive language during shared reading and during play. Although adjectives are essential for understanding and producing language, they can be difficult to acquire. Children must learn that an adjective refers only to part of an object, that a big mouse is quite different to a big house, as well as (in languages which put the adjective before  the noun) having to remember the meaning of the adjective before they find out what it’s describing.

This study surveyed the kinds of adjectives that children hear in the language that adults speak to them, and tries to find out if these adjective types are helpful to children learning language. It tests the hypothesis that children hear lots of descriptive adjectives, i.e. those which describe things in their own right (e.g. ‘the handsome prince’), compared to contrastive adjectives, i.e. those which require them to make comparisons (e.g. ‘the big one’). Our findings suggest that children hear many more descriptive than contrastive adjectives in free play and during shared reading. This is the first stage in understanding the forms and functions of the adjectives that children are exposed to.

Davies, C., Lingwood, J. & Arunachalam, S. (accepted) Adjective forms and functions in British English child-directed speech. Journal of Child Language. Open Access https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/vjsfn


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

In the existing literature, correlations have been found between particular aspects of parental child-directed speech and the incidence of certain elements in 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 focused on five aspects of the child-directed speech used by mothers with children with autism, compared to the CDS used with typically developing children. These were; use of pronouns such as he, she, and it; wh-questions; cognitive state terms such as think and know; terms used for self-reference, e.g. Mummy can help you,  and diversity and density of verbs.
We found differences between the CDS used with typically vs. atypically developing children. Children with autism heard fewer terms such as Mummy used as self-referring expressions; they heard more what– questions; and heard a smaller range of verbs. However, the data was highly variable, with each parent’s patterns of usage varying considerably from others.

Our project highlighted the need for more robust investigations concerning the language environments of children with autism. Methodologically, it highlighted the importance of particular matching criteria when comparing children with autism with their typically developing peers. Rachael passed her viva in January 2019.


Can inferencing be trained via shared book reading? A randomised controlled trial of parents’ inference-eliciting questions on 4 year-olds’ oral inferencing ability (Dr Cat Davies, Dr Michelle McGillion and Dr Danielle Matthews; 2015 – 2018)

Reading and listening comprehension involves lots of different skills. One of these is making links between different pieces of information in a story, or between information in a story and children’s own experiences. Making these links is called inferencing, and it is essential when children start to read independently. This randomised controlled trial investigated whether encouraging inferencing during reading helps children to understand what’s going on behind the scenes of the story. 100 families took part in this parent-delivered intervention over the course of a month. We are currently revising this study for publication in the Journal of Child Language.

With colleagues at the ESRC International Centre for Language and Communicative Development (LuCiD), we have created a range of resources aimed at parents, caregivers and early years practitioners to help support families with shared reading activities; available here.


ManyBabies (Dr Cat Davies with international collaborators; 2017 – 2019)

Throughout summer 2017, we worked with families with children aged 12 – 15 months on a project investigating 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 project aimed 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.

Together with babies from 68 labs worldwide, the final dataset of more than 2,700 infants is (to our knowledge) the largest experimental study of infant cognition ever! Results are currently being analysed and we hope to publish them early in 2019.

A follow-up study looking at the relationship between our original babies’ preferences for infant-directed speech and their vocabulary growth is currently under way. A huge thank you to all of our families who took part in these studies!


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. We would like to thank all the families who took part in our project.

Research has shown that school age children remember new spoken words better after a night’s sleep and that nursery age children remember more new words following a nap. We adapted this research so that it was more like real life, with parents reading stories to their children. We wanted 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 provided parents with instructions and two story books and asked them to read one story before bedtime one week and then the other story in the morning the next week. Each story contained two novel words and after reading the stories we asked parents to see what their children had learned about the novel words.

We have now collected all of the data together and we are in the process of analysing it to see when is the best time to engage in shared storybook reading to promote vocabulary learning.


Look before you speak (Dr Cat Davies and Dr Helene Kreysa; 2014 – 2017)

This study measured how much detail children give when describing objects for someone else. Our five year olds often missed out crucial information from their descriptions, e.g. ‘the jar’ to refer to a closed jar in the display to the left, whereas our 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. This study was published 2018 in the Journal of Child Language (preprint available via PsyArXiv).


Bilingual children’s semantic-pragmatic comprehension of quantifiers (Dr Haifa Alatawi; 2014 – 2017)

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; 2010 – 2015)

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 (2010) and Journal of Experimental Child Psychology (2016).


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.

Looking forward to welcoming Prof Maggie Snowling to Leeds tonight for the British Academy Annual Lecture: Dyslexia… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…

This paper has had a long road to publication - so pleased to receive the acceptance. Kudos to Journal of Child Lan… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…

We argue that a more effective approach to scaffolding inferencing in the preschool years might be to focus on prom… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…