Skip Navigation
Funding Opportunities | Search Funded Research Grants and Contracts

IES Grant

Title: Cognitively Challenging Child-Directed Language as a Mechanism for Literacy Development in Kindergarten
Center: NCER Year: 2011
Principal Investigator: Neuman, Susan Awardee: University of Michigan
Program: Cognition and Student Learning      [Program Details]
Award Period: 4 years Award Amount: $696,124
Type: Exploration Award Number: R305A110038

Co-Principal Investigators: Tanya Kaefer and Ashley Pinkham

Purpose: This project seeks to explore the mechanisms influencing children's vocabulary knowledge and literacy development. In particular, the researchers will explore how children's development is influenced by their experiences with naturally occurring language. This research is designed to address how the cognitively challenging conceptual features of child-directed speech impact children's language development, the interactive effects of parents' and teachers' speech on children's vocabulary knowledge and emergent literacy skills, and the contextual factors influencing parents' and teachers' use of cognitively challenging child-directed speech. By identifying the malleable factors associated with naturally occurring child-directed language and determining the relative influence of these factors on child outcomes, this exploratory research serves as an essential step for work aimed at improving literacy outcomes.

Project Activities: This project is a comprehensive analysis of the effects of representational demand in naturally occurring, child-directed speech (that is, the extent to which the language requires the child to engage in cognitively-challenging thought—to think about what makes a tiger an animal as opposed to thinking about what a tiger looks like). Researchers will study representationally demanding speech (speech that requires children to access preexisting conceptual knowledge to understand the content) in the context of adult-child language exchanges. By carrying out a series of data analyses on an extant dataset from the Ready to Learn (RTL) Home/School Study from 2008-2009, the team seeks to identify the malleable features of child-directed speech that are positively related to children's language and literacy knowledge. In addition, this project will lay the foundation for primary data collection and intervention work in the future. The researchers hypothesize that representational demand will be an important component for future intervention work, such as teacher training (e.g., training teachers to use more representationally demanding language with their elementary school students) and material development (e.g., storybooks structured in a representationally demanding manner).

Products: Products from this study include published reports of research findings.

Structured Abstract

Setting: The setting for this study is an elementary school in the greater Detroit area.

Population: The participants in this study include 80 kindergarten children and their parents and teachers. These children participated in a longitudinal study of vocabulary development in Detroit and its surrounding counties. Children came from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities.

Research Design and Methods: The relationship between representationally demanding language and children's outcomes will be addressed in a series of five research questions. The first research question addresses whether the level of representational demand in child-directed speech differs by socioeconomic status. Our second question addresses whether cognitively challenging child-directed speech influences children's educational outcomes. The third question addresses whether the level of lexical richness (e.g., quantity and complexity of language used) is related to the level of representational demand in child-directed speech, and how that relationship is related in children's educational outcomes. For the fourth question, the research team explores whether the stability of representationally demanding speech influences children's outcomes. That is, the team will examine if children who are exposed to high levels of representationally demanding speech both at home and in the classroom display stronger language and literacy outcomes than children who are exposed to inconsistent or consistently low levels of representationally demanding speech. Finally, researchers will seek to identify whether the interactional context (parent-child interaction in the home versus teacher-child interaction in the classroom) affects the influence of representational demand on vocabulary and language development.

To address the research questions, the study will complete a series of secondary data analyses of information gathered during their 2008–2009 RTL Home/School Study. This rich data source includes information about the home and classroom contexts of 80 kindergartners from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. The database includes audio recordings of naturalistic parent-child interactions, audio recordings of kindergarten classrooms, and a variety of child outcomes measures collected at multiple time points across the academic year. Trained assessors visited participants' homes (4 visits, 8 weeks apart) and kindergarten classrooms (4 visits, 4 weeks apart) in the greater Detroit area. Audio-recordings made during visits to children's homes and kindergarten classrooms will be coded and analyzed to examine the relationships between parents' and teachers' naturally occurring, child-directed speech and children's language development and educational outcomes.

Key Measures: In the original data collection, two proximal outcomes—children's vocabulary knowledge (both receptive and expressive) and concept knowledge—were assessed through five measures, including the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-III (PPVT-III), a receptive vocabulary test, and the Woodcock-Johnson III—Picture Vocabulary, a test to measure children's expressive vocabulary knowledge. Children's conceptual knowledge was measured using the WoW Concepts, a 32-item task; children's category knowledge was measured using the WoW Hybrid, a 12-item receptive task. In addition, researchers will code children's language, using Children's representational demand, a qualititative measure, during recorded interactions for the level of representational demand in their speech. Two distal outcomes, children's oral comprehension and decoding skills, were assessed through three measures, the Stanford Early School Achievement Test—Listening Comprehension, the Woodcock-Johnson III–Letter Word Identification subtest, and the Woodcock-Johnson III–Word Attack subtest.

Data Analytic Strategy: The study will be conducted using secondary data analysis. Research questions will be addressed using structural equation modeling (SEM). Researchers plan to conduct a series of multi-level SEMs to examine the relationships between socioeconomic status, child-directed language, and contextual factors on children's proximal and distal outcomes.


Journal article, monograph, or newsletter

Mol, S.E., Neuman, S.B., and Strouse, G.A. (2014). From ABCs to DVDs: Profiles of Infants' Home Media Environments in the First Two Years of Life. Early Child Development and Care, 184(8): 1250–1266.