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Manchester University Study

Posted in: Case Studies, News | April 17, 2013

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Tiny Toes in conjunction with Manchester University –  dedicated to research into early language development.


In our study at Tiny Toes Nursery, we explore various factors that may shape a child’s language development. A child must eventually come to understand that some verbs can be used in a particular way (e.g. The clown watched Lisa) and others cannot (e.g. The clown laughed Lisa). As discussed in the previous blog, our current study will attempt to answer this question by specifically studying the use of “un” – how does a child come to understand that verbs like open and sat (both of which are reversible actions) cannot take “un” (i.e. unopen, unsat) but verbs like tie and pack (i.e. untie, unpack) can? One intriguing theory is that a verb’s appearance in a certain structure (i.e. un+VERB) depends on its meaning: it is thought that only verbs that have a ‘covering, enclosing or attaching’ meaning can appear with “un” and thus a verb like untie is grammatical but unsat is not. So far, our research has supported this theory: if a verb does not have a ‘covering, enclosing or attaching’ meaning, a child is less likely to use this verb with “un.” This applies to older children more than the younger children – a finding that may be explained by the older children’s better understanding of the verb’s meaning. This is one of many factors that we believe play a role in a child’s development of language – demonstrating that this ability is complex yet fascinating. It has also been pleasing to see that the children are enjoying the language games that we play with them.

To develop a fully creative and adult-like use of language, a child must develop the ability to use words in ways that they have never heard before. For example, a child will learn the verb “zip” and then learn to apply “un” to this word to produce “unzip.” Further, a child must learn to eventually constrain this creativity such that they only produce terms that are grammatical (i.e. a child must learn that “zip” can be used with “un” but a verb such as “open” and “sat” cannot [*unopen, *unsat]).

Last week, The University of Manchester had the pleasure of continuing its collaboration with Tiny Toes Nurseries so as to explore the developmental question outlined above. In the first part of the study, we played a game of bingo such that the child received a card for their bingo grid as a reward for describing a cartoon they saw on a laptop. The research will be exploring various linguistic factors that may predict which words a child is likely to use (more on this in a later blog!). On our next visit to Tiny Toes, children will hear words produced by a comical toy dog and will then be asked to rate whether certain words sound ‘good’ (e.g. unzip), ‘silly’ (e.g. unsat) or ‘somewhere in between’ (e.g. unsqueeze). We are interested in whether the same factors that predict children’s production of words can also influence children’s grammatical judgements of words.

The study will involve the children taking part in a game and will last for approximately 15 minutes, details of which appear below.

As a basic introduction we have attempted to illustrate the type of study to be undertaken.

“When we hear children say things like ‘It goed bang’ we know that they have picked up on some of the regularities of their language and put them to creative use. It is unlikely that they often hear the word ‘goed’ but they can use it on the basis of a pattern they do hear very often: adding ‘–ed’ to a verb to make a past tense.  We are interested in how children learn this pattern and when and why they sometimes over-apply it, a process called over-regularization.  We are also interested in why children sometimes fail to mark pastness, saying things like ‘It go bang’ when they mean ‘It went bang’. Previous studies suggest that the likelihood of children producing a correct past tense form is determined by a number of factors including the amount of times a child has previously heard the past tense of the verb, how a verb sounds in its present and past tense forms, and the verb’s meaning.  In the current study we are interested in investigating these factors in more detail.

Each child will play a game with a researcher. They will be shown a series of pictures of a variety of characters and will hear sentences about their activities.  We will encourage each child to produce a past tense form of a number of different verbs, for example, the researcher might say ‘This duck likes to jump. He’s always  jumping. Yesterday he did the same thing. Yesterday he ….’ and the child might respond “jumped”. Each session will be audio-recorded so we are able to check and code the children’s responses.”

How do you unsqueeze it? Understanding why children sometimes use “un” in ways that adults do not (e.g. unsqueeze, unbreak)

The research aims to learn about how children develop their understanding of grammar. It will involve two studies that are designed to be enjoyed by children:
Example Cartoons: “Lisa bandaged her arm and then she unbandaged it”

Study 1 (one 20 minute session): Your child will take part in a fun bingo game with one of our researchers. Children will sit down with the researcher in front of a laptop computer that will show cartoons of simple actions (as below). The experimenter and child will take it in turns to describe what is happening in each cartoon. The experimenter or child may be given a card by the second researcher as a reward for describing their picture: the person to fill up their bingo grid first is the winner. Children’s responses will be audio recorded for the purpose of data collection.

Study 2 (two 20 minute sessions): On a different day to study 1, the child will sit at the computer with the researcher and see some cartoons similar to those above. The cartoons will be accompanied by sentences – some grammatical and some ungrammatical – that are read aloud by a comical toy dog. Your child will be asked to ‘teach the dog how to speak properly’ by rating on a scale of 1-5 how grammatical they think each sentence is.

We are all very excited and will keep you informed as the study evolves.

The Tiny Toes Team

Please click here for THE STUDY BOOKLET