LINGUIST List 23.2898

Mon Jul 02 2012

Review: Cognitive Science; Language Acquisition: Hoff (2011)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 02-Jul-2012
From: Katherine Messenger <>
Subject: Research Methods in Child Language
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EDITOR: Erika HoffTITLE: Research Methods in Child LanguageSUBTITLE: A Practical GuidePUBLISHER: Wiley-BlackwellYEAR: 2011

Katherine Messenger, Department of Psychology, University of Edinburgh.


''Research Methods in Child Language: A Practical Guide'' is a collection ofpapers that describe in detail a wide variety of language acquisition researchmethods. Its aim is to provide more methodological detail about differentresearch techniques than can typically be found in a journal article. Theintended audience is the interested reader and the advanced student orestablished researcher with an interest in (possibly new avenues in) childlanguage research.

The book begins with a section of biographies of each contributor and a prefaceby the editor describing the book's contents; the end materials provide indicesby key-terms and authors. Each paper opens with a summary box outlining theprocedure described within the paper and closes with lists of key terms withexplanations, references, suggestions for further reading and resources (such asrelevant webpages for software, databases, programmes, etc.).

The papers are collected into four parts. The chapters (1-5) in Part One allcover 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 thechapters is the universal aspect of the methods they describe; many of themethods 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 thatmeasure autonomic responses, such as heart and sucking rates and orientingbehaviour, to a change in stimuli. He details the different methods, stimuli,and equipment that these procedures use and the types of questions andpopulations they can test. He also provides detailed coverage of setting-up,running and analysing habituation procedures, as well as possible strengths andlimitations of the tasks. The style of this chapter (i.e. providing a backgroundto the research method in question in the form of its history, development,scope and research questions before proceeding to provide a detailed explanationof its implementation with regards to equipment and room set up, runninginstructions and data collection methods, and data coding and analysis) is onethat is used for many subsequent chapters of the book. One example of this styleis in the second chapter, by Janina Piotroski and Letitia Naigles, whichexamines the intermodal preferential looking (IPL) paradigm with reference topublished IPL studies. In this paradigm, children are presented with verbalstimuli by audio, and two possible referents by video, and their understandingof 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 DanielSwingley, introduces a related method - the 'looking-while-listening' procedure,which also measures children's looking patterns to stimuli whilst they listen tolanguage, but differs from the former method in that the focus is on thetime-course of comprehension, i.e., children's online processing of language.Swingley provides a potted history to the development of thelooking-while-listening method, including the questions to which it has beenapplied, before also describing in detail how to implement this type of experiment.

Other chapters, including Chapters 4 and 5, represent a slight break from theformat of these initial chapters and instead take a broader approach, focusingon general areas of investigation rather than the specific details of a singlemethodology. Ioulia Kovelman's chapter (4) on neuroimaging methods does not gointo the same level of detail on setting up and running experiments, though thisis in all likelihood due to the greater technological requirements of theneuroimaging methods described. Rather, Kovelman provides a thorough descriptionof 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 chapteroutlines a wide variety of research questions that neuroimaging methods canaddress with reference to numerous reports in the literature. Lastly, Chapter 5(by Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek) is a review chapter ofthe ontogenesis of the various methods described in Part 1.

The chapters in Part Two all cover experimental methods to assess the languagedevelopment of children who are at a stage in language development where they doproduce speech. These chapters (6-12) focus on experimental methods that elicitmeasures of both comprehension and production skills. Chapters 8, 9, and 11follow the format of the earlier chapters in discussing the background of amethod before describing how to implement it in detail. Other chapters, however,again adopt a broader discussion of individual methods rather than describingspecific details. The former three will be discussed first, followed by theremaining four.

Chapter 8, by Ben Ambridge, highlights a graded grammaticality judgement taskdevised to assess children's knowledge of syntactic structures and sets thiswithin the context of other methods (involving both production andcomprehension) for studying the acquisition of syntax. Chapter 9, by ElaineReese, Alison Sparks and Sebastian Suggate, outlines a story re-tellingtechnique that the authors have used to examine the development of higher-orderlanguage skills, such as narration, and the relationship with literacyacquisition, which can also be used to examine other aspects of languagedevelopment (e.g. at the lexical, morphological or syntactic levels), and ofcognitive development (e.g. memory), and of socio-emotional development. Chapter11, by Marina Vasilyeva, Heidi Waterfall and Ligia Gómez, explores the syntacticpriming method for examining children's underlying abstract syntactic competencethrough elicited repetition of syntactic structures.

Chapters 6 (Cynthia Core) and 7 (Barbara Alexander Pan) discuss a broad range ofmethods for analysing phonological and vocabulary skills respectively, ratherthan focussing on the details of a single method. Similarly, Chapter 10, byDavid McKercher and Vikram Jaswal, examines the applications of truth-valuejudgement tasks and grammaticality judgement tasks, and Chapter 12, by JohnTrueswell, explores the use of eye movements in language development research.Rather than focussing on specific details of set-up, coding and analyses, thesechapters provide a broad overview of the method in question, discussingdifferent uses, and, in broad terms, methods of implementation, importantassumptions about the method, and the inferences that can be made about languagedevelopment from the data.

The chapters of the third part focus on naturalistic methods of child languagestudy, presenting a range of methods for studying children's spontaneouslanguage productions, as opposed to experimentally elicited productions.Naturally, therefore, they focus on various means of recording child speech, andsometimes, adult input too, and ways of coding and analysing the resulting corpora.

Chapter 13, by Meredith Rowe, explains and analyses in detail specific methodsfor recording children and their interlocutors and means of transcribing andcoding the resultant interactional data. She also suggests ways in which suchstudies 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 andcognitive development. Their chapter follows the format of earlier chapters infirst discussing the conceptual background of gesture in language acquisitionbefore presenting methods for defining and recording it, detailing ways ofcoding and analysing gesture at different stages of development (frompre-linguistic gesture, through to gesture at the one-word and multi-wordstages), and discussing the interpretation of this data.

The following three chapters all provide detailed discussion of methods fornaturalistic speech data collection. Chapter 15, by Elena Lieven and HeikeBehrens, examines the motivations and means for collecting denser samples ofnaturalistic speech than those that have typically been gathered. They provide adetailed discussion of the particulars of dense sampling and the pros and consof this kind of data collection and usage. Chapter 16, by Letitia Naigles,explores methods for collecting naturalistic speech over a longer period thancan be covered by sampling measures. Three methods (i.e. targeted diaries, thelanguage environment analysis (LENA) system, and the Speechome recorder) andtheir procedures and data outputs are described and assessed. Chapter 17, byDavid Dickinson, describes collecting a different kind of language use -- thatof the classroom. This chapter outlines a variety of methods of classroomlanguage 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 onlinetoolset that is the Child Language Data Exchange System (CHILDES) -- an onlinedatabase of wide-ranging natural language corpora that have been collected andcontributed by different researchers. Corrigan describes the component parts,functions and uses of CHILDES through a discussion of some procedural issuesassociated with research using it and describes in detail how it may be appliedto a research question through an example study.

The fourth and final part covers issues for studying children other than thosewho are typically-developing and monolingual, namely: cross-linguisticdevelopmental research (Chapter 19, Aylin Küntay); research on childrenacquiring language in bilingual environments (Chapter 20, Erika Hoff & RosarioLuz Rumiche); children with language impairment (Chapter 21, Karla McGregor) andchildren with intellectual disabilities (Chapter 22, Leonard Abbeduto, SaraKover and Andrea McDuffie). Rather than discussing an individual experimentalparadigm or methodology, these chapters address issues and challenges involvedwith studying unique populations, describing methods and tools for identifying,accommodating or dealing with these issues. For example, Chapters 19 and 20describe ways of adapting English tests to other languages, whilst Chapters 20,21 and 22 all describe issues in selecting participants for a particularpopulation (e.g. screening and choosing appropriate control participants) and intesting these participants (e.g. ensuring an appropriate testing method andenvironment). Chapters 21 and 22 also discuss the clinical impact of researchwith special populations.


In my opinion, ''Research Methods in Child Language: A Practical Guide'' meets itsaim of providing an accessible and thorough introduction to research methods forprobing many aspects of language development. Its coverage is wide-ranging, fromtechniques for researching children’s discrimination of sounds or words, totheir production and comprehension of words and sentences in on- and off-linetasks, through to higher-order aspects of language development such as storynarration and discourse. Both technologically and methodologically very simpleand complex tasks are discussed, as are both traditional methods and more moderntechniques made possible by technological advances. The book is unbiased in itscoverage, presenting methods favoured by opposing approaches to child languageresearch. Thus, most researchers in child language development could find withinthe pages of this book at least one, if not more, suitable technique forpursuing their research questions.

Since the chapters typically set their methods in their historical andconceptual context, the book provides the reader with further insight into theviability of the method for a given area of research, as well as thepresuppositions and premises that it is based on. The organisation of thechapters into the four parts is coherent and logical and generally follows thechronological course of language development also, such that techniques usefulfor testing very young infants appear earlier in the book than methods forresearch with older, even school-age, children. The tone and style of writing ishighly accessible throughout the book and is suitable for a student reader aswell 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 specificdetail the means of setting up, running, and analysing an experimental methodwhilst other chapters present more of a discussion of a methodological area oran area of language acquisition for investigation. In my opinion, the formerchapter 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 methodthan can be included in a journal article” (p. xviii). Chapters that follow thisformat (e.g. Chapters 1, 8 and 11) could be used by the interested reader toactually conduct a piece of research, from set-up through data analysis, whilstother chapters would require follow up reading by the individual researcher tofind out the details of how to conduct research in that area. However, somechapters (e.g. Chapters 4 and 12) are inherently limited due to thetechnological demands of the methods described being beyond the scope of thesechapters.

Nonetheless, the collection amounts to a dense source of information on languageacquisition theory and research -- each chapter provides a number of resourcesthat are particularly useful (e.g. online references and databases, software,and so forth) and the collected references amount to an enormous andcomprehensive collection of literature in the field of language development. Assuch, not just researchers but also those teaching language development coursesmight find it useful for its collection of resources, which could be used forteaching as well as research purposes. A perhaps unintentional, thoughinevitable, additional aspect of the book is that it also provides a history ofthe development of language acquisition research that the interested readermight independently appreciate.

The book certainly adds to the currently available literature on languageacquisition research; typically child language textbooks focus on theories oflanguage development (e.g. Berko Gleason & Ratner, 2008), and whilst some mayalso pay attention to the methods of research that lead to those theoreticaldevelopments (e.g. Saxton, 2010), there are very few books that haveconcentrated 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) ormethodological 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 provisionof a topically broad-ranging and detailed research methods handbook for childlanguage.

This book, though perhaps of limited use to individuals interested to learn moreabout a single method of research, since much of the book would therefore beirrelevant, will undoubtedly prove to be an invaluable resource for aninstitution’s library or for a lecturer or supervisor to provide for theirstudents and researchers.


Berko Gleason, J., & Ratner, N.B. (eds). 2009. The Development of Language (7thEdition). Boston: Pearson.

Blom, E., & Unsworth, S. (eds). 2010. Experimental Methods in LanguageAcquisition Research. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

McDaniel, D., McKee, C., & Smith Cairns, H. (eds). 1996. Methods for AssessingChildren'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: SAGEPublications Ltd.

Sekerina, I.A., Fernández, E.M., & Clahsen, H. (eds). 2008. DevelopmentalPsycholinguistics: On-line Methods in Children's Language Processing. Amsterdam:John Benjamins Publishing Company.


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 Fellowship.

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