Jill de Villiers and Peter de Villiers
For over 25 years at Smith, we have conducted
studies of language development and related cognitive achievements in preschool children,
often enlisting the help of the children at Fort Hill and Sunnyside. Many of
you will have signed the slips from our letters requesting you to permit your child
to join a study.
All of our studies must pass by the Institutional
Review Board for the use of Human Subjects at Smith, who make sure that the studies
meet the requirements for the protection of the rights and confidentiality of the
But what do we do? In this space we provide
a short summary of current work we have completed recently and links to our larger
website where you can read about our funded projects and peruse recent papers if
you wish to download them.
We have a small testing space right off the
main hall in Fort Hill, and there is a one-way window if you ever want to see us
at work. We generally show children picture books we have made with specially
designed questions, or we play games with puppets to see if they can teach the puppet
to "talk right", or we ask them to guess what someone will do next in a
story we act out or show on video. Some of our work is "pure" science,
but much of it has very real practical outcomes.
Language and Theory of Mind
was the site of a longitudinal study of 3 and 4 year olds that demonstrated that
certain language gains were necessary before children could reason about another
person's beliefs and knowledge. This
work was extended across several languages, and confirmed with Deaf children who
often have delayed language development if they are learning oral language. We
are still pursuing how language assists thinking in this important domain, and have
a new grant to study a very large group of low-income preschoolers in Texas and Florida
over several years as part of a curriculum intervention project.
We are also attempting to develop intervention
materials that might help children with special difficulties, such as in autism.
(To be established)
African American English
For many years
we have been involved in studying how African American children acquire the special
properties of the dialect spoken by many African Americans. We had a contract from NIH to develop a suitable
language assessment test that would not be biased against dialect speakers, but pick
out children who had language difficulties. In developing this test, we piloted
many of the items on children in the Smith day care centers, though the test was
standardized on over 3,000 children throughout the country.
For all of our
time at Smith we have studied language acquisition in the preschool years, with a
focus on semantics, syntax and pragmatics. Fort Hill was the site of a longitudinal study of how children
understand complex questions, of how they understand quantifiers like "every",
of how they produce relative clauses, of article... in fact, they have contributed
enormously to our understanding of how English develops!
(to be established)
College Department of Psychology