A tool which could radically improve the diagnosis of language delays in infants in the UK is being developed by psychologists.
A £358,000 grant to develop the first standardised UK speech and language development tool means that for the first time, researchers will be able to establish language development norms for UK children aged eight months to 18 months.
The tool will plug an important gap which has left UK researchers, education and health professionals at a disadvantage.
Until now, UK language experts have been forced to rely upon more complicated methods of testing child language development, or on methods designed for American English speakers which can lead to UK babies being misdiagnosed as being delayed in language development.
The two-and-a-half year project funded by the ESRC will also look into the impact of family income and education on UK children’s language development, as well as examining differences between children learning UK English, and other languages and English dialects.
The project is expected to make a major contribution to language development research as well as to the effectiveness of speech and language therapy and improved policy making.
Researchers are keen to hear from parents with children under 18 months to take part in the study.
They are also particularly interested in hearing from English dialect speakers such as families from Scotland and Northern Ireland, and from parents who left school early.
The research team is led by Dr Katie Alcock of Lancaster University’s Centre for Research in Human Development and Learning, who will be working alongside fellow language development specialists Professor Caroline Rowland of the University of Liverpool and Dr Kerstin Meints of the University of Lincoln.
They will develop a UK Communicative Development Inventory (UK-CDI) which will consist of a checklist of a wide variety of children’s communication abilities in using and understanding speech and gesture, which can be quickly and easily filled in by parents.
Once the tool is developed researchers will use it to carry out large scale studies of babies and toddlers in the UK. This wealth of new UK-specific data will enable parents and professionals to pick up on problems more easily by comparing a child’s progress against national averages.
Dr Alcock said: “When we study children’s language development, it is crucial to know what a ‘typical’ child can do, in order to ensure that teachers, doctors, speech and language therapists, and policy makers are properly informed.
“Parents are the very best people to tell us what their child can do and say – they know the most about their child.
“Most language milestones occur in the first few years of life, so it is vital that we find out what these typical levels are for very young children. However, this is extremely difficult because most language tests cannot be used with very young children.
“Effective tools have been developed abroad but they are not appropriate for UK English speakers. Tools developed in the US, for example, have been shown to give inaccurate results for UK children. One research group for example found that using US scores with UK children would lead to high numbers of UK children being misdiagnosed as language delayed.
“When complete, this new research will directly improve the UK research on child speech and language development and make a substantial contribution to the wellbeing of children and families in the UK.”
Anyone wishing to take part in the study should contact the research team.