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Review of  Research Methods in Child Language

Reviewer: Katherine Messenger
Book Title: Research Methods in Child Language
Book Author: Erika Hoff
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Cognitive Science
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 23.2898

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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

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

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.

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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