June 12, 2008
Vol. 27 No. 18

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    NIH awards grant for language development research

    By William Harms
    News Office

    The National Institutes of Health has awarded the University a $7.7 million, five-year grant to study the development of language among children, in order to better understand how early, preschool development relates to learning how to read.

    This study will build on a longitudinal study of 60 children from a diverse set of families who already have participated in an NIH study to examine how they develop language in the home. The researchers also are studying 40 children with brain injuries, who will be followed as they enter school.

    “The ability to communicate using language and gestures is a uniquely human capacity,” said Susan Goldin-Meadow, the principal investigator for the study. “All children acquire language, but they do so at different rates. The goal of our project is to explore how environmental and biological factors interact to create these individuals differences. Our aim is to delineate the extent, as well as the limits, of language learning in children,” said Goldin-Meadow, the Beardsley Ruml Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology and the College.

    The research is divided into four planned projects, each under the leadership of a principal investigator.

    The first project will examine the effects of environmental variation on language and reading development. Janellen Huttenlocher, the William S. Gray Professor in Psychology, will be the principal investigator for this project. Rebecca Treiman, an expert on reading and the Burke and Elizabeth High Baker professor at Washington University, will work with Huttenlocher.

    Huttenlocher and Treiman will look at the development of language in children in different home and school environments to learn more about the role of environment in later language development and entry into reading. Using these data, language growth curves will be constructed for each child to track language development, from the earliest stages through the child’s first years of schooling.

    The second project, which Goldin-Meadow will lead, will look at gesture in these children to establish its role in revealing children’s abilities and influencing language growth.

    For that project, Goldin-Meadow will explore whether children use their hands to express ideas that they cannot yet express in speech, effectively using gesture to expand their communicative range. The project will also examine individual differences in how children use gesture, focusing on whether those differences predict later language use. Finally, the project will explore whether gesturing plays a role in helping children learn language.

    Susan Levine, Professor in Psychology and the College, will lead the third project, which will focus on language and reading development in children with brain injuries to examine the combined effects of biological and environmental variations on learning.

    The researchers will examine the plasticity of language and reading skills, studying children ages 5 to 10 who experienced a brain injury before or around the time of birth. By assessing language and reading development in the school year, they will be able to determine whether plasticity for early language extends to reading and more complex language processes. The researchers also will try to determine if environmental variation plays the same role in predicting language growth in brain-injured children as it does in children without a brain injury.

    Steven Small, Professor in Neurology, Psychology and the College, is principal investigator for the fourth project, which will look at the brain organization underlying language processing and the effect of environmental and biological variation.

    That project will look at the organization of language functions in both typically developing children and children who suffered early brain injuries. Children will have functional brain imaging to evaluate brain development for language and gesture. These fMRI scans will be used to understand how parts of the brain that are used for language interact and adapt as children (with and without brain injuries) refine their language skills and learn to read.

    Another important feature of the study is the development of robust statistics to support the work. Stephen Raudenbush, the Lewis-Sebring Distinguished Service Professor in Sociology and Chair of the Committee on Education, and Larry Hedges, the Board of Trustees professor of statistics and social policy at Northwestern University, will lead this effort.

    Raudenbush pointed out the importance of these projects and the potential for obtaining new information about how children learn.

    “This will be the first study to show how language development beginning during the second year of life is linked to the emergence of reading comprehension and oral language that are key to later school success,” he said. “The study will generate new ideas about how to improve preschool and primary school instruction.”