Infant language development in early childhood centres

Macquarie's Talk-Learn-Know project is the first Australian study investigating role of early childhood centres in the language development of 12 to 18 month olds.

mia-mia-1As over 25% of Australian under-twos and around 45% of under-threes attend early childhood centres, this is a significant knowledge gap and an important opportunity to make meaningful educational gains.

Studies show that the first two years of a child's life set the foundations for language development. MQ TaLK! will investigate interactions occurring during this time, both at home and in early childhood centres.

Process and findings

Findings from the MQ TaLK! study will be used to help educators and families of infants and toddlers provide the best start for our youngest children.

We aim to work with families and educators in over 30 early childhood centres to conduct this study. We will invite parents of children under 18 months to participate. We intend to visit around 240 children over the course of the study.

Our study information will be collected in two phases: the first when each participating child is somewhere between 12 and 18 months of age, and the second phase, two years later when the child is three years old.

In this large study, we will be using a number of methods at our centre and home visits.

As experienced early childhood researchers, the team is very aware of the need to collect research data respectfully and sensitively. We will work collaboratively with families and centres so as to have minimal impact on the child’s normal daily activities and schedules.

The study will be conducted by a team of researchers whose backgrounds cover early childhood, psychology, audiology and linguistics:

Associate Professor Sheila Degotardi: With a background in early childhood teaching, Sheila's research specialises in infant-toddler teaching and learning in early childhood centre contexts.

Associate Professor Mridula Sharma: Mridula is an audiologist whose research focuses on speech perception in noise.

Associate Professor Naomi Sweller: Naomi is a developmental psychologist with expertise in children's gestures and their relationship to learning.

Dr Emilia Djonov: Emilia is an educational linguist who investigates how children use verbal and non-verbal means to communicate and learn.

Dr Sandra Cheeseman: With a background in early childhood leadership, Sandra focuses on infant-toddler curriculum and policy.

Data collection: A team of research assistants will work closely with the researchers, our partner centres and participating families to conduct the data collection in a professional manner, whilst being friendly and approachable.

Research methods

Each child in the study will be visited both at home and at their early childhood centre.

At the early childhood centre

We will video-record the child during normal free play time over a period of 90 minutes. The child won't be asked to do anything special or different from their normal activities. The researcher will use a hand-held camcorder and use the zoom to remain at a comfortable distance from the child, so as to be as unobtrusive as possible.

At the home

Our researcher will bring with them a box of interesting play things. In this approximately 15 minute casual play session, the parent (or another nominated guardian) will be asked play with their child with these toys. There is no set way to do this – they will simply be asked to play with their child as they normally do at home. This will be video-recorded by the researcher.

The LENA (Language Environment Analysis system) is made up of a small recording device which slips inside a custom-made loose vest worn by the child for a period of time. The device records voice and other sounds that are experienced and produced by the child, including:

  • talk to the infant
  • infant vocalisations
  • other noise such as TV, banging sounds, vehicles.

Once recorded, the sound file is analysed using software that produces number-based summaries of how much clear and unclear talk the child has heard and produced, how many vocalisations they have produced, and how many interactions the child has experienced.

LENA is very easy to use – the vest (with the recorder inside the pocket) is simply put on the child and then is left turned on for the day (the vest can be removed during sleep for comfort). The researcher will help fit the vest and turn on the recorder. We have used LENA in previous studies and found that most babies are totally at ease with it.

At the early childhood centre

At the end of the day, the LENA is turned off and returned to the researchers. As the audio file can only be extracted from the recorder with the specialised LENA software, the recording is completely secure and confidential.

In addition to the number-based summary, 90 minutes of sound recording will be extracted from the centre recording only.

A researcher will take measures when the infants’ classroom is empty and occupied at various locations including outdoors, to monitor the noise exposure of the child’s immediate learning environment. The researcher will also take notes on room characteristics that can affect the sound environment, including floor coverings and proximity to noise sources such as roads and flight paths.

The researcher will collect information regarding the room’s average group size, numbers of educators and staff qualifications on the day of the visit. The centre’s National Quality Rating assessment will noted from the MyChild website.

At the home

At the end of the day, LENA is turned off and returned to the child’s early childhood centre next time they attend, from where the researchers will collect it.

Language development assessment

A child’s current language and communication skills are likely to influence the kinds of interactions that they participate in. We therefore need to find out about these skills.

To do this, we have a short questionnaire which asks questions such as “Does your child imitate sounds that you and others make?” to which the parent simply answers ‘Yes’ or ‘Not yet’. It will take less than five minutes and will give us important information about each child’s developing language skills.

Infant, family and home experiences questionnaire

Parents will complete a short questionnaire to provide basic information about their child (eg. age, gender, basic health and hearing information), the family (who lives the house, family resources, language spoken) and home activities (such as playing, outside activities, singing and reading, TV and screen activities).

We can either email the link to this survey before we visit, which allows parents to complete it at home in their own time, or the researcher can complete it together with the parent during the home visit.

The child is visited at the centre approximately two years after the first observations, when they are aged three.

The researcher will:

  • video record the now three-year-old child during normal free play time over a period of 60 minutes. This recording will be conducted in the same manner as during the first visit
  • repeat the sound environment measures used during the first visit
  • measure each child’s general language development using the widely used Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test and the Expressive Vocabulary Test. As we are also interested in how the child uses language, we will ask them to describe images and events in a picture story book story.
At the home

When the child is three years old, we will ask parents to complete a brief version of the infant, family and home experiences questionnaire again, via an emailed link. There will be no follow-up home visit.

Ensuring the confidentiality and privacy of our families, educators and centres is of great importance to us. Information or personal details gathered for the study are strictly confidential. We will de-identify everything by assigning an ID code for all children, educators and centres. Information will be stored securely and only staff employed by the project will have access.

We will not show video footage or still images of children, families or educators to anyone outside the research team without the specific and separate written consent of all involved.

LENA audio files can only be extracted from the recorder with the specialised LENA software, so the recording is completely secure and confidential. Once processed, the sound file will be deleted.

Participating centres and families will be updated via a regular newsletter.