Youngsters who can lick their lips, blow bubbles and pretend that a building block is a car are most likely to find learning language easy, according to a new study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Psychologists at Lancaster University, led by Dr Katie Alcock, found strong links between these movement, or motor and thinking, or cognitive, skills and children's language abilities.
Their study looked at more than 120 children aged 21 months - the time when they are learning new words at a faster rate than at any other stage of their life. It included questionnaires for parents and special tests of motor and cognitive abilities.
Dr Alcock said that an especially interesting finding was that children who were poor at moving their mouths were particularly weak at language skills, while those who were good at these movements had a range of language abilities. She believes that the findings could help child experts identify very early on those youngsters most likely to have problems with their understanding of words and speech in later life.
In experiments, the children were divided into four groups, and those in three of these were given more detailed testing in motor skills, understanding, or language and hearing.
The study found that in each group, some skills had closer relationships to language abilities than others. They also showed different patterns of relationships. For instance, there was no link when it came to easier movements, such as walking and running.
To assess spontaneous speech in a familiar place, researchers recorded everything said by children, and the person looking after them, during a half-hour free play session in each child's home. This was then analysed in terms of the range of words produced, and the length of sentences.
In a second group, children were assessed on a wide variety of thinking and reasoning skills: working out how to put puzzles together, matching pictures and colours, interacting with an adult to get their attention, and 'pretending' that one object is another, such as using a block for a car, or a box for a doll's bed, or giving a doll a tea party.
Children who were good at this were also better at language, but there was no relationship with more general thinking skills, such as doing puzzles.
In another group, children were tested on their ability for instance, to say a new or unfamiliar word or to work out which of two Teletubbies pictures the sound they are hearing goes with.
Children who could say new words an adult asked them to repeat, were best at language. Being able to listen to a new word or a funny sound and work out which picture it went with also distinguished between children with advanced and not so strong abilities.
Dr Alcock said: "We have found links between non-language and language skills in children at a time of very rapid development. We plan to follow-up this study when the children are older, to find out which skills give the best indication of later language abilities and problems.
"We have already examined how much parents talk to their children at home. Now we are also going to look at parents' levels of education, and the children's home environments, such as the number of books they have, to see what influences these have."
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