Current Studies

Promoting Literacy Development in Children in Rural Cocoa Producing Communities

How does inconsistent access to language and reading instruction in a new language impact literacy outcomes? How can we best design policies to ameliorate the negative consequence of poverty on literacy? As part of the Transforming Education in Cocoa Communities (TRECC) program and with a team of Ivorian graduate students, we are conducting a cognitive, linguistic, and reading assessment in children growing up in rural cocoa communities in Cote d’Ivoire. We combine behavioral indicators of literacy development with portable neuroimaging using functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) to shed new light on brain development in impoverished and adverse conditions. Children in these communities face many challenges to learning to read: high poverty rates, poor school attendance, and child labor in cocoa agriculture. Children face the added challenge of learning to read in a new language, French, different from the language spoke in their community. Education is almost exclusively French, while there are over 60 languages spoken in Ivory Coast. Our combined brain-behavior approach allows us to apply the latest tools of cognitive neuroscience to advance the study of global child development.

Research Team: Dr. Hermann Akpe, Fabrice Tanoh, Axel Blahoua

Funding: Jacobs Foundation

Neural Correlates of Pragmatic Inference in Preschool Children

In communication, children have to learn how to go beyond what someone directly says to interpret what they really mean.  For example, if after your karaoke performance, a friend says to you, “Some people here are great singers, and some people must have other talents…” you have to be able to interpret what they mean to avoid further embarrassment in the future. These hidden meanings are rarely, if ever, spoken out loud, and children aren’t usually taught them, yet even adults with wildly different developmental backgrounds interpret them the same way.  How do children learn to interpret non-literal meanings that are rarely, if ever, said out loud?  This research study focuses on these questions:  at what age can children successfully interpret non-literal meanings?  Which abilities (such as language skills, the ability to reason about other’s mental states, the ability to perform higher level cognitive process) contribute to this development?  Which abilities are insufficiently developed in children who can not successfully interpret non-literal meanings?  This study aims to answer these questions by studying the neural networks that underlie each of these abilities in the developing child’s brain.

Research Team: Alyssa Kampa

Research Partners: Anna Papafragou, Language and Cognition Lab, University of Delaware

Promoting Literacy Development in Children in Rural Cocoa Producing Communities

Learning to read depends not only on having access to education, but on having access to quality education. In this research program, we develop a technology-based literacy intervention program for remote, rural communities of Côte d’Ivoire with the goal of providing quality, evidence-based educational programming via mobile phone to complement the school curriculum. No existing literacy intervention programs in Cote d’Ivoire currently offer scalable solutions to quickly address the problems of widespread student literacy failures. Our interdisciplinary approach combines expertise in literacy development, tech-based education solutions, and human-computer interaction in order to examine how technology-based literacy intervention, and its effective implementation and scalability, can improve literacy outcomes in communities with high illiteracy rates. We combine multiple research tools from the learning sciences (language, cognitive, and literacy assessment, longitudinal neuroimaging of the brain’s reading networks, and evaluation of technology use and integration into the community) to find an optimal and scalable strategy for literacy intervention that can be adopted in Cote d’Ivoire and throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Research Team: Herman Akpe, Fabrice Tanoh, Axel Blahoua

Research Partners: ENEZA Education; Dr. Amy Ogan, Carnegie Mellon University

Funding: Jacobs Foundation (Co-PI: K. Jasinska)

Tracking the Neuroplasticity of the Speech Cortex and Language Outcomes in Children with Cochlear Implants

Hearing loss is one of the most common birth defects in the United States affecting approximately 3 in 1,000 newborns. Depending on the degree of hearing loss, deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) infants receive interventions that may include cochlear implants (CI). Nevertheless, there is a huge amount of variability in these children’s linguistic and academic outcomes. The amount/type of therapy that children receive, as well as the language input they are exposed to are thought to contribute (to some degree) to this variability. Additionally, the age of implantation is considered one of the strongest predictors of language outcomes for DHH children, since lack of exposure to sound early in life affects the development of the brain’s auditory processing areas. But not all children implanted at the same age achieve the same language skills. Could there be factors at the neural level that make it easier (or harder) to process speech and acquire language once the brain gains access to sound through the CI? The mechanism by which the brain adapts to a new sensory modality following implantation and begins to perceive the relevant speech stream in a range of listening environments (including noisy contexts that may negatively impact speech processing), and the implication for developing language skills remain poorly understood. We combine two cutting edge technologies (fNIRS and eye-tracking) to examine dynamic changes in neuroplasticity and organization of neural pathways for speech perception and language skills right after implantation. Our research may help predict language outcomes and explain the high degree of individual variability observed in children with CIs. Children requiring additional support could be identified earlier, preventing language delays and later academic problems.

Research Team: Janina Boecher

Research Partners: Dr. Giovanna Morini, Communication Sciences and Disorders, University of Delaware; Dr. Thierry Morlet, Nemours Children’s Health System

The Impact of Declarative and Procedural Memory Systems on Late Childhood Literacy Development

Children in the United States typically start school by age 7, but many children around the world (including in Ivory Coast) may start as late as age 12. Such a high variability in age when beginning school raises an urgent question: Does the developmental landscape of older first-time readers (disproportionately from low- and middle-income countries; LMICs) impact how they learn to read? The Declarative/Procedural Model of Language (Ullman, 2004; Ullman & Lovelett, 2018) posits that two memory systems contribute differently to reading. Procedural Memory supports learning patterns (e.g. linking sounds-letters) while Declarative Memory supports learning associations (e.g. linking words-meanings). Both systems are essential to skilled reading but mature at different rates. While procedural memory matures around 7 years of age, declarative memory continues to mature into adolescence. This project examines if these developing memory systems support learning to read differently for younger versus older first-time readers.

Research Team: Joelle Hannon-Cropp, Benjamin Zinszer

Neurological difference in morphological processing in bilinguals vs. monolinguals

This study aims to investigate how cross-linguistic differences impact neural representations of bilinguals’ morphological processing, specifically, whether morphological typology in L1 influences processing of L2 inflectional morphemes. Languages differ in morphological typology along a continuum from synthetic to analytic. Spanish (synthetic) has a complex inflectional system, while Mandarin Chinese (more analytic) lacks inflection but uses a rich compounding process. English, as a moderately analytic language, utilizes a less developed inflectional system compared to Spanish. Morphological processing is supported by a left hemisphere-based language network, including ventral and dorsal pathways that connect frontal and temporal language regions. Left inferior frontal gyrus (L-IFG) is involved in processing inflected words, while left middle temporal gyrus (L-MTG) is involved in lexical-based semantic processing such as compounding. Previous research shows influence of L1 morphological features on neural activation in L2 derivation and compounding processing. However, little is known about cross-linguistic influences on inflectional morphology, and whether previously observed patterns of L1 influence on L2 would hold true across a wider continuum of languages (Spanish, English, Chinese). This study is designed to fill in this gap and advance our more complete understanding of the neuro-organization of bilinguals’ morphological processing.

Research Team: Danyang Wang

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