AMHERST — UMass Amherst will be one of two sites for a national study that aims to better understand language and cognition in two groups of children affected by language disorders.
Language-development researchers Jill Hoover, associate professor of Communication Disorders in 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 investigators were awarded 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 grammatical skills and executive functions over a two-year period of development in preschool and school-age children.
“Grammatical skills serve a foundational role in language development. They underlie higher-level oral language skills and directly affect academic skills, such as reading and writing,” Hoover said. “We also know that weak grammatical skills can negatively affect children’s ability to follow directions, and they can hinder social interactions. Executive functions include the cognitive processes used to manage and control thoughts and behaviors. They are critically important to function in one’s environment since they are related to the planning, problem solving, decision making, and adapting to environmental changes.”
This study will be the first to look at grammar skills and executive functions together over time while also making comparisons across two clinical groups. “We want to see the extent to which these two constructs are separate or interrelated in clinical disorders associated with language impairments and what that looks like over a two-year developmental window,” Hoover said.
The research will include children with developmental language disorder (DLD) and males with fragile X syndrome, an inherited condition. A third group of children without either disorder will constitute the control.
Developmental language disorder is a common childhood language condition. In a classroom of 30 children, two will typically be affected by DLD, making it five times more common than autism, Hoover noted. “DLD is characterized by significant impairments in language, but grammar tends to be one of the earlier aspects of language that is noticeably weak. Weak grammatical skills result in spoken language that is not as complex as we might expect from other children of the same age, and it can also lead to difficulties understanding others.”
Fragile X syndrome is the most common inherited form of intellectual disability, and affected males have significant language impairments.
In the course of their collaborative research leading up to this grant, Hoover and Sterling discovered that children with DLD displayed similar weaknesses in grammatical skills as children with fragile X syndrome.
“Children with fragile X have an intellectual disability, but children with developmental language disorder do not,” Hoover said. “These two clinical groups that look quite different in terms of their overall cognitive profile are strikingly similar in terms of some elements of their grammatical skills. There are, however, a few differences that we haven’t been able to explain.”
The researchers hope to learn more about grammatical development in these groups of children by also considering potential relationships with executive functioning skills.
“The relationship between language and cognitive processes has been a long-standing question in our field,” Hoover said. “This is a study taking two different clinical populations and comparing them to one another on a set of skills; that’s been done before. What hasn’t been done is testing the complex relationship between grammar skills and executive functions across two clinical groups to see if that improves our understanding.”
In the near future, children will be recruited from across the nation to travel to either Massachusetts or Wisconsin for in-person testing. They will return two years later to repeat the testing. The families’ travel costs will be reimbursed. The study is particularly significant for families with fragile X syndrome because the disorder is rare, and research opportunities are limited.
“The parents are going to walk away having a really comprehensive picture of their children’s development on the basis of the information that we collect at both time points,” Hoover said.
She added that the researchers will gather data they hope will eventually lead to clinical trials directed at improving communication and everyday functioning. “Our ultimate goal is to see how we can maximize the effectiveness of interventions kids are getting in schools.”