AMHERST, Mass. – The University of Massachusetts Amherst will be one of two sites in a national study aimed at better understanding language and cognition in two groups of children affected by language impairments.
Language development researchers Jill Hoover, associate professor of communication disorders at the UMass Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences, and Audra Sterling, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will lead the research at their respective campuses. .
The researchers received a five-year, $ 2.4 million grant from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, split evenly between the two university sites, to study grammar skills and executive functions. over a two-year developmental period in kindergarten and school-age children.
âGrammatical skills play a fundamental role in language development. They underpin higher-level oral language skills and directly affect academic skills, such as reading and writing, âsays Hoover. âWe also know that poor grammar skills can negatively affect children’s ability to follow directions and can hinder social interactions. Executive functions include the cognitive processes used to manage and control thoughts and behaviors. They are of crucial importance for functioning in one’s environment as they are related to planning, problem solving, decision making and adaptation to environmental changes.
This study will be the first to examine grammatical skills and executive functions together over time, while making comparisons between two clinical groups. âWe want to see how separate or interdependent these two constructs are in clinical disorders associated with language impairment and what that looks like over a two-year window of development,â Hoover said.
The research will include children with developmental language disorders (DLD) and men with fragile X syndrome, an inherited condition. A third group of children without any disorder will constitute the control.
Language development disorder is a common language disorder in children. In a class of 30 children, two will typically be affected by DLD, making it five times more common than autism, Hoover notes. âDLD is characterized by significant language impairment, but grammar tends to be one of the first aspects of language that is noticeably weak,â she says. “Poor grammar skills result in spoken language that is not as complex as one might expect from other children of the same age, and this can also cause difficulty understanding others.”
Fragile X syndrome is the most common inherited form of intellectual disability, and affected men have significant language impairment.
During their collaborative research leading to this grant, Hoover and Sterling found that children with DLD had the same weaknesses in grammar skills as children with fragile X syndrome. âChildren with fragile X have intellectual disabilities, but children with language development disabilities do not,â says Hoover. âThese two clinical groups that seem quite different in terms of their overall cognitive profile are surprisingly similar in terms of some elements of their grammatical skills. There are, however, a few differences that we have not been able to explain.
Researchers hope to learn more about the grammatical development of these groups of children by also considering potential relationships with executive functioning skills. âThe relationship between language and cognitive processes is a long-standing issue in our field,â says Hoover. âThis is a study taking two different clinical populations and comparing them to each other on a skill set; this has already been done. What has not been done is to test the complex relationship between grammatical skills and executive functions in two clinical groups to see if it improves our understanding.
In the near future, children will be recruited from across the country to travel to Massachusetts or Wisconsin for in-person testing. They will come back two years later to repeat the tests. Travel expenses for families will be reimbursed. The study is especially important for families with Fragile X syndrome because the disorder is rare and research possibilities are limited.
âParents are going to come away having a really complete picture of their children’s development based on the information we collect at both points,â says Hoover.
The researchers will collect data that they hope will eventually lead to clinical trials aimed at improving communication and day-to-day functioning. âOur ultimate goal is to see how we can maximize the effectiveness of the interventions that children receive in schools,â Hoover said.