Language use in preschool children: A role for a domain-general contextual facilitation process?

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14 July 2014

Presenter(s): Dr Karen Banai
Time: 13.00 -14.00
Location: NHBRU, Meeting Room 1


Cognitive development in the first years of life involves increased specialization of brain function as well as an increase in the use of domain specific knowledge. Nevertheless, the role of domain-general processes in preschool language remains poorly understood (and little studied). We hypothesize that anchoring -- a domain general process that allows individuals to implicitly benefit from contextual information embedded in sequences of stimuli – contributes to a range of language functions in children. To test this hypothesis, a series of studies was conducted in preschool children (overall n > 250). In those studies, anchoring in a range of language and non-language tasks was estimated by comparing performance across task conditions differing in the degree of contextual consistency across stimuli. For each task a higher-context and a lower-context condition were compared, and performance differences favoring the higher-context condition were taken as evidence for anchoring. We report four major findings. (1) Anchoring was found to facilitate performance across non-verbal visual and auditory tasks as well as phonological awareness, rapid naming and phonological working memory. (2) Anchoring in those experimental tasks accounted for unique variance in independent assessments of vocabulary, definitions, phonological awareness and letter knowledge.  (3) Morphological similarity across words was found to induce anchoring, but interfere with word learning (4) Children with developmental language impairments had anchoring deficits in word learning and verbal memory tasks. Together, these data suggest that anchoring directly contributes to performance in a range of language tasks and relates to individual differences in language skills. Consistent with our anchoring hypothesis, these findings support the claim that a domain-general contextual facilitation process contributes to a range of language functions in the preschool years. We therefore propose that domain-general contextual facilitation contributes to language development in the preschool period, although further longitudinal studies are needed to support this proposal.