Our research

Current 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).

We are currently running a study to measure children’s experience of descriptive language during shared reading and during play. Although adjectives are common in the language that children hear, 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 hold in mind the meaning of the adjective before they discover what it is describing.

Our first study tests the hypothesis that children hear a large proportion of descriptive adjectives, i.e. those which describe referents 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 initial findings suggest that children hear many more descriptive than contrastive adjectives in free play and book texts. This is the first stage in understanding the forms and functions of the adjectives that children are exposed to.

 

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.

 

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).

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 writing up this study.

 

Completed studies

ManyBabies (Dr Cat Davies)

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.

Huge thanks and goodbye to our fabulous Q-Step summer intern. Millie helped push our projects on in all sorts of wa… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…

RT @Literacy_Trust: There’s no better way to keep your child’s development going over the summer holidays than reading. Visit your loca… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…

Calling all parents of children with #asd. If your child is 3-7 yrs old and has #autism please consider taking part… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…