What impact does research have?

This was a question I used to get asked a lot by my friends when I was a PhD student. It’s a question I still find myself asking today, and one that I sometimes struggle to answer. Essentially, what is the point of research?

As a PhD student, I spent the best part of three and a half years designing, conducting, and analysing studies. I then spent just as much time writing those studies up as journal articles. If I was lucky enough to get them published in peer-reviewed journals, they would predominately be read by colleagues from other universities. I then found myself asking, what about the rest of the world? How do I inform the public about what I’ve been doing for three and a half years? And do they even care anyway? I always had this niggling thought in the back of my mind - what impact is this research having (if any)? And how do I know if it is? Who do I tell about my research, and how? How do I encourage others to use or apply my research in some way?

‘Research Impact’ has become a bit of a buzzword across universities and funding bodies. But what does it mean? Prof. Mark Reed is, at least in my eyes, the best person to ask. His book ‘The Research Handbook’ is a fantastic resource I’ve used and recommended to other researchers interested in impact. It’s equipped with evidence-based tools you can use to design and evaluate impact related activities. Prof. Reed defines research impact in the following way:

“Research impact is the good that researchers can do in the world. It consists of the non-academic benefits that arise, whether directly or indirectly, from research. Knowledge exchange is a precursor to impact, and this happens through learning, when the data and information from research becomes knowledge that people can benefit from or use”.

I believe that language development research can particularly benefit people including children, families, speech and language therapists, librarians, teachers, and nursery workers. One of the take-home messages that comes from this large body of research is that a great way to promote children’s language development is adults and children talking together. It’s a simple message that researchers should be promoting, particularly to caregivers and nursery workers. But it struck me that it may be quite difficult for caregivers or nursery workers to just start up a conversation with a child spontaneously. It’s like when there’s a technical glitch during a talk or a gig and someone says down the microphone “just talk amongst yourselves for a few minutes”. Usually everyone sits in complete silence.

And that’s when I had an idea.

I thought to myself, what if we promoted talking together through different activities such as shared book reading, crafts and songs. With lots of support, and encouragement from Dr. Cat Davies, I decided to apply for some research impact funding to put on an event as part of the ESRC social science festival for local families and schools. I was fortunate enough to get the funding (wohoo!) and the event ‘Talking Together through Tales, Toys, and Tunes’ was born.

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The event began with an interactive storytelling performance from our friends at The Rainbow Factory, and focused on language and communication. Stories were brought to life by performers acting out the story, and encouraging children to actively participate.

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Cat and I then spent some time chatting to parents and nursery workers about the important role they can play in developing children’s language through talking.

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After a short lunch break, children and adults then participated in three different workshops: stories (Tales), crafts (Toys), and music (Tunes). The workshops were designed to encourage children and adults to have a conversation about what they can see, hear, and feel.

In the Tales workshop, children and adults took part in a Gruffalo hunt and had to find the different descriptive words from the story.

In the Toys workshop, children and adults created some crafts from the stories.

And in the third workshop children and adults engaged in a musical sensory experience involving instruments, nursery rhymes and singing together.

To ensure families continued to talk together after the event, they were given a ‘conversation pack’ of materials to take away.

As stipulated in Prof. Reed’s book, it is important to evaluate the impact of the research impact activities. First, we gave adults postcards from our event to write to themselves saying what they wanted to remember or what they would do differently as a result of their experiences. We will then post the postcards back to participants 3 months after the event to remind them of their commitments and ideas, encouraging them to act and deepening the impact of the public engagement activity.

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Second, we asked adults and children to how useful they had found the event, by asking them to throw a ball in the desired bucket.

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We’d like to thank all the children and adults for attending the event. We hope that through this impact work they have been inspired to talk in some new and interesting ways!

You can find the materials from the event here, including a number of new videos explaining various aspects of child language development, together with some other resources to support caregivers.

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Jamie Lingwood
Research Fellow

My research interests include language development, language processing, and shared book reading.