And just like that, my time as a Research Fellow at the Leeds Child Development Unit has come to an end. For the past two and half years, I’ve been working on an ESRC funded project with Dr Cat Davies, looking children’s experience and understanding of adjectives. Here’s what we’ve been up to.
An initial first step of the project was to find out how children experience adjectives in the real world. To do this, we ran a corpus analysis study looking at the types of adjectives that children hear from their caregivers during child-directed speech. In this study we focused on the adjectives children hear during shared book reading (both in the text itself, and the conversations around the text), and during freeplay. Overall, we found that all sources of child-directed speech elicited several adjectives in a range of positions and with a range of functions. We found adjectives occurred more frequently in prenominal positions (e.g. the red car) than postnominal positions (e.g. the car that’s red), though postnominal frames were more frequent for less familiar adjectives and we think this helps children when learning adjectives. Additionally, adjectives occurred much more frequently with a descriptive function i.e. describing things in their own right (e.g. the handsome prince), compared to contrastive adjectives, i.e. those which make comparisons (e.g. the big one), especially for less familiar adjectives.
These findings presented a puzzle; the types of adjectives that children hear are not those that studies have shown to be most beneficial for learning. The next step was to find out how children process these adjectives in a controlled experimental setting. To do this, we recently ran an eyetracking study to investigate how children process scalar adjectives. Children were told that they would see some pictures on a computer screen. Alongside this, they would hear some audio describing one of those pictures. Their task was to look at the picture that they were hearing being described. Across two experiments, we analysed eye movement data to investigate three-year-olds' integration of adjectives and nouns, their contrastive inferencing ability, and their comprehension of prenominal and postnominal adjectives. We are still in the process of writing up the study for publication, but preliminary findings show that children’s interpretation of adjective-noun combinations is integrated and that children are able to demonstrate contrastive inferencing, when given the time to do so.
Alongside this experimental work, we have also been active in the community with our research impact work. Research impact can be defined as the non-academic benefits that arise, whether directly or indirectly, from research. One of the take-home messages from our corpus analysis study was that a great way to promote children’s language development is by encouraging adults and children to talk together together. To promote this message, I was fortunate to be able to secure some funding from the ESRC to organise an event called ‘Talking Together through Tales, Toys, and Tunes’. Hosted by our friends at The Rainbow Factory, it aimed to empower caregivers and nursery staff to support children’s language development through conversation and other activities like shared book reading.
The event began with an interactive storytelling performance, focusing on language and communication. Stories were brought to life by performers acting out the story, and encouraging children to participate. We then spent some time chatting to caregivers and practitioners about the important role they play in developing children’s language through talking. One thing that emerged from these brief discussions was that reading was not often mentioned as an activity that they enjoyed doing with children. Participants tended to focus on child-led play-based activities such as role play and messy play. This suggests that for many, reading happens less frequently than other activities at home. However, for most parents, language played a central part of the rich imaginary worlds that their children created with them at home or at nursery.
After lunch, 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. To ensure families continued to talk together after the event, they were given a pack of materials to take away, including some top tips about sharing books with children.
Another way of ensuring our research has ‘impact’ is through the use of informational videos. Families who visit us at the Leeds Child Development Unit often raise questions about their child’s language development. We decided it would be useful to put together some videos all about children’s language development. Each short video addresses a common question raised by parents and teachers about their child’s language development, including how to encourage language development, when it may be necessary to see a speech and language therapist, and bilingualism.
Alongside making our own videos, I was fortunate enough to be involved with filming some short clips for the BBC’s Tiny Happy People campaign. The initiative aims to empower parents and practitioners to support children’s language development through a number of videos, resources and activities. In this first video, I offer some tips about how to explore different sound effects during storytime. In this second video, we get inventive by changing the words to favourite nursery rhyme tunes
Continuing Professional Development
Related to our impact work, we’ve also run two workshops on shared book reading which were hosted by our friends at Leeds libraries. The first workshop focused on the positive impact shared book reading can have on boosting children’s language development. With participating teachers, librarians, grandparents, and academics we discussed what shared book reading is, why it is important, and what it is important for.
The second workshop was exclusively for nursery workers and focused shared book reading barriers as well as the important role that early years staff play in supporting the development of language and early literacy.
I feel incredibly privileged to have been given the opportunity to work on this project over the last few years. Most of the work described here would not have been possible without the help of our friends and colleagues at the University of Leeds, Leeds Child Development Unit, New York University, Child Friendly Leeds, The Rainbow Factory, and Leeds Libraries, to name but a few. The project is not over just yet, however, and in November 2020 we will be hosting a free online workshop where researchers, teachers, clinicians, and other related professionals working in speech, language, and communication will be invited to discuss the place of descriptive language in their work.
Watch this space!