The Symposium for Research on Child Language Disorders celebrates its 40th birthday this year. Each year, SRCLD meets in Madison to “provide a forum for sharing recent research and promoting interaction among established scholars and students in child language disorders”.
My talk (slides here) was about learning to read. Once children have the basics in place, plenty of reading experience is needed to bring about expertise. We know reading experience is important, but less clear is which aspects of experience are most critical (for discussion, see here). We are investigating ‘reading experience’ using two complementary approaches. At scale (referred to in the talk as the ‘macro’ approach’), we are quantifying the nature and content of reading experience using language corpora written for and by children. These analyses produce lexical statistics for words that we can then relate to how well children read and understand those words. As an example of this approach, I described some of our recent work investigating semantic diversity – a metric that captures the similarity in content of all the contexts a word appears in across a corpus. Our key findings to date show that children find words that are high in semantic diversity easier to recognise (see Hsiao & Nation, 2018, and this blog by Nicky Dawson) but harder to reflect on when the task requires meaning judgement (for preprint, see Hsiao, Bird, Norris, Pagán & Nation). The second approach is more micro. Here we manipulate and control aspects of the learning environment (for example, the number of times a child encounters a word, or the type of context a word appears in) and assess how this impacts on learning. This work is challenging as there are many ways one can choose to manipulate and control the learning environment, and multiple ways one can assess learning. We also need to distinguish between being able to recognise or spell words and being able to understand meaning. I talked about an experiment led by Holly Jospeh (Joseph & Nation, 2018) that measured children’s eye movements as they read newly learned words. Some of the words had been seen in more diverse words, others in more diverse context. While learning happened (as evidenced by reductions in fixation duration by the end of the experiment), the diversity manipulation did not have an effect in this experiment. Work led by Ascen Pagán is also using eye movement measures to investigate word learning via read (for a recent experiment with adults, see Pagán & Nation, 2019).
Although I talked about the importance of meaning and context, it is not the case that beginning readers use contextual cues to learn new written words; nor should early reading instruction emphasise contextual guessing and multiword strategies. That being said, our work indicates that a rich and varied diet of reading experience is critical for word recognition development, once the basics are in place. And certainly, experience is needed to bring about high quality vocabulary knowledge – knowledge that is rich, flexible and nuanced, appropriately tuned to the context in hand.
Another focus in the talk and extended discussion was book language. It is clear that written language is different to spoken conversational language in important ways. It contains more vocabulary and is more lexically diverse; it also contains syntactic structures that are rare in spoken language, like passives for example. Even books written for preschoolers contain much more complex language than spoken conversations. I’ve written here about the importance of book language. And for more detail, check out these lovely papers by Jessica Montag and colleagues, here, here and here. Supported by the Nuffield Foundation, we’re taking a closer look at book language and hoping to use our findings to ‘close the language gap’. More generally, the discussion touched on the reading wars (more here) and the language foundation of learning to read (more here).
I loved the daily parlé podcasts reporting on the conference, hosted by Chantal Mayer-Crittenden and Michèle Minor-Corriveau. This is such a great initiative. And thanks to the Parlé Podcast for featuring my talk on the day 2 episode!
There were many things that made the SRCLD great. First and foremost, the quality, diversity and vibrancy of the research being talked about: a quick skim over the poster abstracts makes this clear. I liked the format too: no parallel sessions, a small number of invited talks and themed talks, fabulous poster sessions in a light-filled room with plenty of time and space to discuss and learn. I also liked the symposium’s tradition of showcasing early career researchers. Members of the Program Committee are all early career researchers (chaired this year by Laura Friedman) and all sessions are introduced and chaired by early career researchers.
Another feature of this year’s meeting was a discussion on terminology: whether we should retain the term Specific Language Impairment within a broader category of Developmental Language Disorder or not. Unfortunately, there was not enough time to discuss at length on the day. But to hear more on this discussion, check out Dorothy Bishop’s blog on the topic, and the ‘day 3’ episode of the Parlé Podcast, featuring an interview with Tiffany Hogan. There’s also been good discussion on twitter: #SRCLD, #DevLangDis and #RADLD. Dorothy’s blog also contains links to the CATALISE consortium papers on identification and terminology — do read these if you’re interested in the detail and evidence regarding Developmental Language Disorder.
Thanks so much to Susan Ellis Weismer and all at SRCLD for the invitation to participate in this year’s symposium. Happy 40th birthday SRCLD and here’s to many more years of quality research, dissemination and career development support.