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April 25, 2011

Ensuring Children Have the Language to Learn

A Smith College professor is part of a four-year, $2.8-million research effort to develop a vital language assessment tool for children ages 3 to 5.

1NORTHAMPTON, Mass – Despite the critical   importance of language in children’s development during the preschool years, no quick and efficient language screener yet exists to identify children who need help.

Jill de Villiers at Smith College is part of a team of researchers who plan to change that. With $2.8 million in funding from the Institute of Education Sciences, the group is collaborating to develop an early intervention language assessment tool based on the latest research in developmental science and the newest technology.

“Mastery of a first language is the crowning achievement of the preschool years. It forms the basis for schooling, literacy and social relationships,” said de Villiers, Sophia & Austin Smith Professor of Psychology. “Without special training, a child’s difficulties may not be noticed easily. It is vital to have careful and subtle assessments to catch problems early before they multiply.”

De Villiers and fellow researchers Roberta Golinkoff at the University of Delaware, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Aquiles Iglesias at Temple University and Smith alumna Mary Sweig Wilson ’61 at Laureate Learning, aim to design a tool that will allow presentation of dynamic stimuli and a touch screen for the child’s response.

The new tool will not require a skilled examiner to administer. It will take only 20 minutes to complete, and it will be designed to assess the language abilities of children speaking either English or Spanish as a native language.

Research has found that children with poor communication skills are less sought after socially, more likely to be ignored or excluded by peers. Those children tend to fall behind and develop poor self-esteem at a very young age.

At the same time, scholars have identified various language milestones that all children should achieve, regardless of their native language.

“Typically developing children are savants at language,” said de Villiers. “The more I know about linguistics, the more astonishing their achievements seem to me. Natural language is much more complex than calculus, so why are 4-year-olds so good at it?”

This summer , the team will begin developing a test that will provide information on both a child’s competency in vocabulary and word-learning strategies, and the child’s grammar and use of syntax in comprehension.

The assessment tool will also be able to provide both individual and group data. While individual data will be used to identify children who need extra assistance, group data will provide a baseline from which to assess the effectiveness of specific classroom strategies and document progress.

Throughout the next four years, the researchers will test more than 300 children in preschools, day care and Head Start programs. The population will reflect diversity in regard to gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic status.


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