EDITOR: Erika Hoff TITLE: Research Methods in Child Language SUBTITLE: A Practical Guide PUBLISHER: Wiley-Blackwell YEAR: 2011
Katherine Messenger, Department of Psychology, University of Edinburgh.
''Research Methods in Child Language: A Practical Guide'' is a collection of papers that describe in detail a wide variety of language acquisition research methods. Its aim is to provide more methodological detail about different research techniques than can typically be found in a journal article. The intended audience is the interested reader and the advanced student or established researcher with an interest in (possibly new avenues in) child language research.
The book begins with a section of biographies of each contributor and a preface by the editor describing the book's contents; the end materials provide indices by key-terms and authors. Each paper opens with a summary box outlining the procedure described within the paper and closes with lists of key terms with explanations, references, suggestions for further reading and resources (such as relevant webpages for software, databases, programmes, etc.).
The papers are collected into four parts. The chapters (1-5) in Part One all cover experimental methods for studying children who are at the preverbal (i.e. not producing language) stage of language development. They naturally, therefore, focus on language comprehension methods. A common theme of the chapters is the universal aspect of the methods they describe; many of the methods have the advantage of not only working with very young, preverbal, children but also with children of all ages, as well as with adult participants.
The first chapter, by Christopher Fennell, discusses habituation procedures that measure autonomic responses, such as heart and sucking rates and orienting behaviour, to a change in stimuli. He details the different methods, stimuli, and equipment that these procedures use and the types of questions and populations they can test. He also provides detailed coverage of setting-up, running and analysing habituation procedures, as well as possible strengths and limitations of the tasks. The style of this chapter (i.e. providing a background to the research method in question in the form of its history, development, scope and research questions before proceeding to provide a detailed explanation of its implementation with regards to equipment and room set up, running instructions and data collection methods, and data coding and analysis) is one that is used for many subsequent chapters of the book. One example of this style is in the second chapter, by Janina Piotroski and Letitia Naigles, which examines the intermodal preferential looking (IPL) paradigm with reference to published IPL studies. In this paradigm, children are presented with verbal stimuli by audio, and two possible referents by video, and their understanding of the verbal stimuli is inferred from the video referent they prefer to look at (i.e. examine for longer) whilst listening. Furthermore, Chapter 3, by Daniel Swingley, introduces a related method - the 'looking-while-listening' procedure, which also measures children's looking patterns to stimuli whilst they listen to language, but differs from the former method in that the focus is on the time-course of comprehension, i.e., children's online processing of language. Swingley provides a potted history to the development of the looking-while-listening method, including the questions to which it has been applied, before also describing in detail how to implement this type of experiment.
Other chapters, including Chapters 4 and 5, represent a slight break from the format of these initial chapters and instead take a broader approach, focusing on general areas of investigation rather than the specific details of a single methodology. Ioulia Kovelman's chapter (4) on neuroimaging methods does not go into the same level of detail on setting up and running experiments, though this is in all likelihood due to the greater technological requirements of the neuroimaging methods described. Rather, Kovelman provides a thorough description of different types of uni- and multi-modal imaging techniques, how they function (i.e. whether they provide temporal or locational measures of brain activity), and who and what they can be used to study. As in other chapters, this chapter outlines a wide variety of research questions that neuroimaging methods can address with reference to numerous reports in the literature. Lastly, Chapter 5 (by Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek) is a review chapter of the ontogenesis of the various methods described in Part 1.
The chapters in Part Two all cover experimental methods to assess the language development of children who are at a stage in language development where they do produce speech. These chapters (6-12) focus on experimental methods that elicit measures of both comprehension and production skills. Chapters 8, 9, and 11 follow the format of the earlier chapters in discussing the background of a method before describing how to implement it in detail. Other chapters, however, again adopt a broader discussion of individual methods rather than describing specific details. The former three will be discussed first, followed by the remaining four.
Chapter 8, by Ben Ambridge, highlights a graded grammaticality judgement task devised to assess children's knowledge of syntactic structures and sets this within the context of other methods (involving both production and comprehension) for studying the acquisition of syntax. Chapter 9, by Elaine Reese, Alison Sparks and Sebastian Suggate, outlines a story re-telling technique that the authors have used to examine the development of higher-order language skills, such as narration, and the relationship with literacy acquisition, which can also be used to examine other aspects of language development (e.g. at the lexical, morphological or syntactic levels), and of cognitive development (e.g. memory), and of socio-emotional development. Chapter 11, by Marina Vasilyeva, Heidi Waterfall and Ligia Gómez, explores the syntactic priming method for examining children's underlying abstract syntactic competence through elicited repetition of syntactic structures.
Chapters 6 (Cynthia Core) and 7 (Barbara Alexander Pan) discuss a broad range of methods for analysing phonological and vocabulary skills respectively, rather than focussing on the details of a single method. Similarly, Chapter 10, by David McKercher and Vikram Jaswal, examines the applications of truth-value judgement tasks and grammaticality judgement tasks, and Chapter 12, by John Trueswell, explores the use of eye movements in language development research. Rather than focussing on specific details of set-up, coding and analyses, these chapters provide a broad overview of the method in question, discussing different uses, and, in broad terms, methods of implementation, important assumptions about the method, and the inferences that can be made about language development from the data.
The chapters of the third part focus on naturalistic methods of child language study, presenting a range of methods for studying children's spontaneous language productions, as opposed to experimentally elicited productions. Naturally, therefore, they focus on various means of recording child speech, and sometimes, adult input too, and ways of coding and analysing the resulting corpora.
Chapter 13, by Meredith Rowe, explains and analyses in detail specific methods for recording children and their interlocutors and means of transcribing and coding the resultant interactional data. She also suggests ways in which such studies can be used to examine morphological, lexical and pragmatic development. Chapter 14’s authors (Erica Cartmill, Özlem Ece Demir and Susan Goldin-Meadow) examine ways of studying children’s gestures and their role in language and cognitive development. Their chapter follows the format of earlier chapters in first discussing the conceptual background of gesture in language acquisition before presenting methods for defining and recording it, detailing ways of coding and analysing gesture at different stages of development (from pre-linguistic gesture, through to gesture at the one-word and multi-word stages), and discussing the interpretation of this data.
The following three chapters all provide detailed discussion of methods for naturalistic speech data collection. Chapter 15, by Elena Lieven and Heike Behrens, examines the motivations and means for collecting denser samples of naturalistic speech than those that have typically been gathered. They provide a detailed discussion of the particulars of dense sampling and the pros and cons of this kind of data collection and usage. Chapter 16, by Letitia Naigles, explores methods for collecting naturalistic speech over a longer period than can be covered by sampling measures. Three methods (i.e. targeted diaries, the language environment analysis (LENA) system, and the Speechome recorder) and their procedures and data outputs are described and assessed. Chapter 17, by David Dickinson, describes collecting a different kind of language use -- that of the classroom. This chapter outlines a variety of methods of classroom language data collection (from taped interactions to real-time and live coding), set within the context of their development and use in referenced studies.
The last chapter of this part (18, by Roberta Corrigan) presents the online toolset that is the Child Language Data Exchange System (CHILDES) -- an online database of wide-ranging natural language corpora that have been collected and contributed by different researchers. Corrigan describes the component parts, functions and uses of CHILDES through a discussion of some procedural issues associated with research using it and describes in detail how it may be applied to a research question through an example study.
The fourth and final part covers issues for studying children other than those who are typically-developing and monolingual, namely: cross-linguistic developmental research (Chapter 19, Aylin Küntay); research on children acquiring language in bilingual environments (Chapter 20, Erika Hoff & Rosario Luz Rumiche); children with language impairment (Chapter 21, Karla McGregor) and children with intellectual disabilities (Chapter 22, Leonard Abbeduto, Sara Kover and Andrea McDuffie). Rather than discussing an individual experimental paradigm or methodology, these chapters address issues and challenges involved with studying unique populations, describing methods and tools for identifying, accommodating or dealing with these issues. For example, Chapters 19 and 20 describe ways of adapting English tests to other languages, whilst Chapters 20, 21 and 22 all describe issues in selecting participants for a particular population (e.g. screening and choosing appropriate control participants) and in testing these participants (e.g. ensuring an appropriate testing method and environment). Chapters 21 and 22 also discuss the clinical impact of research with special populations.
In my opinion, ''Research Methods in Child Language: A Practical Guide'' meets its aim of providing an accessible and thorough introduction to research methods for probing many aspects of language development. Its coverage is wide-ranging, from techniques for researching children’s discrimination of sounds or words, to their production and comprehension of words and sentences in on- and off-line tasks, through to higher-order aspects of language development such as story narration and discourse. Both technologically and methodologically very simple and complex tasks are discussed, as are both traditional methods and more modern techniques made possible by technological advances. The book is unbiased in its coverage, presenting methods favoured by opposing approaches to child language research. Thus, most researchers in child language development could find within the pages of this book at least one, if not more, suitable technique for pursuing their research questions.
Since the chapters typically set their methods in their historical and conceptual context, the book provides the reader with further insight into the viability of the method for a given area of research, as well as the presuppositions and premises that it is based on. The organisation of the chapters into the four parts is coherent and logical and generally follows the chronological course of language development also, such that techniques useful for testing very young infants appear earlier in the book than methods for research with older, even school-age, children. The tone and style of writing is highly accessible throughout the book and is suitable for a student reader as well as a more experienced researcher.
However, the style of the individual chapters of the book varies quite widely, as highlighted in the summary above. Many chapters explain in quite specific detail the means of setting up, running, and analysing an experimental method whilst other chapters present more of a discussion of a methodological area or an area of language acquisition for investigation. In my opinion, the former chapter format better meets the aims of the book, which, as I understand them, are to elaborate the “tools” (p. xvi) of language acquisition research, to “describe the techniques child language researchers use” (p. xvi) and to “provide the reader with more background and procedural detail about each method than can be included in a journal article” (p. xviii). Chapters that follow this format (e.g. Chapters 1, 8 and 11) could be used by the interested reader to actually conduct a piece of research, from set-up through data analysis, whilst other chapters would require follow up reading by the individual researcher to find out the details of how to conduct research in that area. However, some chapters (e.g. Chapters 4 and 12) are inherently limited due to the technological demands of the methods described being beyond the scope of these chapters.
Nonetheless, the collection amounts to a dense source of information on language acquisition theory and research -- each chapter provides a number of resources that are particularly useful (e.g. online references and databases, software, and so forth) and the collected references amount to an enormous and comprehensive collection of literature in the field of language development. As such, not just researchers but also those teaching language development courses might find it useful for its collection of resources, which could be used for teaching as well as research purposes. A perhaps unintentional, though inevitable, additional aspect of the book is that it also provides a history of the development of language acquisition research that the interested reader might independently appreciate.
The book certainly adds to the currently available literature on language acquisition research; typically child language textbooks focus on theories of language development (e.g. Berko Gleason & Ratner, 2008), and whilst some may also pay attention to the methods of research that lead to those theoretical developments (e.g. Saxton, 2010), there are very few books that have concentrated on the specifics of those methods in such detail as this. Furthermore, existing research methods books tend to be narrower in scope, focussing on one area of investigation (e.g. syntax in McDaniel et al., 1996) or methodological paradigm (e.g. language production in Menn & Ratner, 2000; on-line methods in Sekerina et al., 2008; but see also Blom & Unsworth, 2010). Thus Hoff’s new book really does extend the existing literature in its provision of a topically broad-ranging and detailed research methods handbook for child language.
This book, though perhaps of limited use to individuals interested to learn more about a single method of research, since much of the book would therefore be irrelevant, will undoubtedly prove to be an invaluable resource for an institution’s library or for a lecturer or supervisor to provide for their students and researchers.
Berko Gleason, J., & Ratner, N.B. (eds). 2009. The Development of Language (7th Edition). Boston: Pearson.
Blom, E., & Unsworth, S. (eds). 2010. Experimental Methods in Language Acquisition Research. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
McDaniel, D., McKee, C., & Smith Cairns, H. (eds). 1996. Methods for Assessing Children's Syntax. London: MIT Press.
Menn, L., & Ratner, N.B. (eds). 2000. Methods for Studying Language Production. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Saxton, M. (ed). 2010. Child Language: Acquisition and Development. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Sekerina, I.A., Fernández, E.M., & Clahsen, H. (eds). 2008. Developmental Psycholinguistics: On-line Methods in Children's Language Processing. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Katherine Messenger is a post-doctoral research scholar in the Department
of Psychology at the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests
include first language acquisition and the application of psycholinguistic
methods to language acquisition research. Her research currently focuses on
children's comprehension and production of syntactic structures,
particularly passives, through preferential-looking and syntactic priming
studies. Her work is currently funded by a Leverhulme Trust Early Career