Child language acquisition
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Delivery guides are designed to represent a body of knowledge about teaching a particular topic and contain:
- Content: a clear outline of the content covered by the delivery guide;
- Thinking Conceptually: expert guidance on the key concepts involved, common difficulties students may have, approaches to teaching that can help students understand these concepts and how this topic links conceptually to other areas of the subject;
- Thinking Contextually: a range of suggested teaching activities using a variety of themes so that different activities can be selected that best suit particular classes, learning styles or teaching approaches.
This section focuses on child language acquisition up to and including the age of seven. The focus of this specification is purely on spoken acquisition and the question will always direct students to discuss the child’s language and not that of any adults present in the data.
Learners focus on linguistic analysis of a short sample of authentic children’s spoken text. Some aspects of spoken text will be transcribed phonemically, using symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). A copy of the IPA is found in Leaner resource 4.1 and will be included in the exam paper.
Learners should develop their analysis of linguistic features in the text with reference to theoretical concepts of child language acquisition to aid interpretation of the data. The key to accessing higher band marks and to writing sound linguistic responses is identify patterns of language use.
The study must cover the language levels and is assessed for AO1 and AO2 only. There are no marks for contextual understanding although it would seem impossible to analyse the data without some understanding of the situational factors which affect it.
|AO1||Apply appropriate methods of language analysis, using associated terminology and coherent written expression.|
|AO2||Demonstrate critical understanding of concepts and issues relevant to language use.|
Critical understanding is the key part of AO2 as it clearly states that candidates must be using and responding to conceptual models of acquisition rather than just describing them in relation to data given.
Approaches to teaching the content
This guide is focused on developing conceptual understanding that is both in depth enough to apply convincingly to the data but also broad enough to show a range of approaches have been considered. It emphasises wider reading as well as looking at couple of the IPA in some depth as this is an area students can find intimidating.
Learners often arrive with pre-conceived ideas about how babies learn to talk which are often rooted in their own experience of learning (as they remember it) other skills at school. A good starting point is to challenge those pre-conceptions so that they approach CLA from a more linguistic starting point. Additionally, the debate this can cause is an engaging way of opening up the course.
The activity itself is flexible and straight forward. Learners can cut up the table that is in Learner resource 1 into cards and then place these cards on the agreement continuum at the bottom of the page of the Learner Resource whilst discussing their reasons for each decision. Learners should be, at this stage, encouraged to draw on/challenge their own folk-linguistic assumptions about acquisition. This can then lead to a whole class discussion. This activity could be completed as a think-pair-share task as another option.
Alternatively, each statement could be displayed on the board and learners could place themselves on a class agreement continuum (i.e. physically move to a given point at the front or back of the room). Once they’ve decided where they want to stand, the teacher can spotlight student views and begin broader discussion in this way.
- This can be a nice point at which to introduce some data to back up the concepts discussed. A fun starting point can be to take advantage of eager parents’ YouTube videos which provide a wealth of data (if carefully selected). Two useful videos are the (rather famous) babbling twins (see Video 1 resource) and this video of a baby called Adam during his first year (see Video 2 resource). This is also a good point to introduce straightforward exam-style data. The short data used in Jean Aitcheson’s “Building the Web” Reith Lecture is useful (see resource) and fairly easy to analyse for early linguists.
- A number of conceptual areas have been opened up for discussion in this task and sharing summaries of the major theories and asking learners to match them up could be a fairly obvious direction to take this activity.
It can be easy to forget just how much is involved in both encoding and decoding information verbally. Learners, in fact most human beings, do it effortlessly in their native tongue so it is useful (and fun) to try and put learners back into the role of language learner for a short time. This can be done with the activities below which focus on lexical, phonological and semantic acquisition. Whilst not advancing curriculum knowledge, it does provide learners with a better basis from which to consider children’s perspective on acquisition.
As a starter, ask learners to repeat a short phrase after you (I prefer something grammatical but meaningless along the lines of Chomsky’s “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously”). The point of this is to emphasise how easy it is to hear word breaks and form memory if you’re familiar. Then, ask learners to listen to 30 seconds of a foreign TV programme (the news works well and here is a link to a German news programme on Youtube (see resource)). Challenge the learners to pick out and repeat what they hear. The point, of course, is to emphasise the difficulty of even counting how many words were spoken.
- Often, but not always, there is a pattern to the words learners can pick out. See if learners can identify the pattern and suggest what that might tell them about care-giver speech. (Usually, learners pick up on proper nouns, the first and final words in sentences if lexical not functional and any single word utterances).
A second task involves learners communicating either a foreign or made-up word to one another using only that word plus gestures, an activity which is outlined in Learner resource 2. This is fun, engaging and nicely makes a point about the need to negotiate meanings. For added difficulty, include some words with unusual (for English) consonant clusters as well as a range of word classes.
- Learners can reflect on which classes of words were most easy/difficult to work out and why.
- This could then be applied to babies learning language. Learners could write a ‘guide’ for an as yet unborn child telling them of the challenges they will face.
Although not explicitly covered on the specification, research and case studies based on feral children and chimps can provide an illuminating way of exploring ideas about acquisition theories and their relevance/usefulness. Learner resource 3 provides case studiers for learners to research. This also serves as excellent preparation for an acquisition focused Topical Issues question as it gives learners a broader understanding of research in this area.
Prior to completing the research/presentation task, it is useful to review/introduce key theories. There are many summaries available and Crystal’s Encyclopaedia presents them succinctly. Alternatively, the following link provides a more detailed consideration of the main theories (see resource).
- Most obviously, this task lends itself to a written essay response which could then be marked for AO2 only although this is perhaps the least interesting option.
- An alternative is to assign learners a particular experiment or theory which they attempt to debunk/support. This can then be preparation for a debate.
- Learners could use their research to create a script for a section of a documentary on the topic. This would then force learners to consider who they could include to comment on these experiments and case studies (with the obvious stipulation that they must be alive).
The IPA is useful in interpreting the data given in the exam and even though there will always be a glossary of IPA symbols, the learners would be better advised to become comfortable with the key terms associated with it. This will improve their ability to approach texts descriptively and thus, give them more to analyse. This activity is aimed at starting the process of becoming familiar with the IPA.
To begin with, ask learners to explain what a phoneme is and to list as many as they can. (English has 44 phonemes so you could challenge them to name them all). Once feedback has been taken, display the ‘word’ ghoti and ask learners to pronounce it. This is an old spelling riddle often (wrongly) attributed to George Bernard Shaw. Once they fail to pronounce it, tell learners what the word is and ask them to explain how.
Learners are given the IPA list (Learner resource 4) and should attempt to script a short conversation (2-3 Adj Ps) before swapping with their partner. They should remember to focus on sounds not spelling. Pairs should then swap and attempt to ‘perform’ them as a means of marking the attempts.
- Learners should be able to spot phonemic representation but if this is to be really useful, they should be able to name at least the consonants. Using a more detailed version of the IPA chart (see Consonant chart resource) learners should attempt to name each consonant phoneme in their scripted piece.
- Learners could use a more detailed IPA chart to create revision flashcards for each phoneme. These could be used as short starters in future lessons.
- Another alternative which will really reinforce learners’ ability to use the IPA can be found on the Newcastle University IPA page. This is a public resource for anyone studying IPA and includes practice activities based on real and nonsense words. This link will take you directly to the practice exercises (see resource).
Whether this counts as flipped learning, independent learning or just plain learning, it is good practice for learners to be summarising both academic and non-academic work throughout the year. A good approach is to begin with articles from the mainstream media, such as the Guardian article (see resource), before building up to more academic texts as the year progresses.
It’s as simple as that. Learners précis the article at home and complete a discussion in class to explore it’s issues. Learner resource 5.1 and 5.2 provide two possible discussion structures for use in groups but any feedback activity would work.
- Learners follow the structure from Learner resource 5.1 by using each card once during the discussion. This requires them to introduce their point in a considered way with examples, agree, build and challenge other speakers. This could be further developed by ‘planting’ a contradictory article with one student in each group and requiring them to only challenge other group members.
- Consensus doughnut: Learner resource 5.2 should be blown up to A3 size before use. Learners, in groups of four, fill in their section with what they feel are the main points of the article. They then rotate the doughnut to read each other’s ideas before agreeing on the final point which is then written in the centre.
As a follow on from Lesson Activity 5, Learner resource 6 is a series of questions to help guide learners through watching or reading Pinker’s lecture entitled Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain the URL for this lecture is provided on the Learner resource sheet. This provides a good review of some basic knowledge of language levels as well as a detailed presentation of what Pinker believes are the key concepts that underpin acquisition. It includes discussion of Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, the Wug test, methods of articulation, question acquisition and other interesting areas of study.
- The activities from Lesson Activity 5 could still apply but may not be suitable given the density of the text being studied. A better feedback outcome may be to use their answers to the questions to create a simplified lecture on language acquisition. This could be a shortened version of the whole lecture or the class could be given key sections to review and present back. Suitable sections could be: What is language?; The contributions of Chomsky; Universal grammar; Phonology (could be split into: Language Production; Speech comprehension); and Pragmatics.
- Once presentations have been delivered (and quality control ensured) you could send the learners away to create a vlog of their presentation for a ‘floating’ A-Level page on your school’s website or virtual network.
- As with all conceptual activities, a good follow up to get learners to apply this knowledge to analysing data.
Halliday and Dore both provide useful frameworks for understanding the pragmatic purposes of child language. There are any number of ways to introduce these concepts and they can be done side-by-side or discreetly. As Dore’s functions are a response to (or rather a refinement of) Halliday’s functions, using one to introduce the other is the approach suggested here.
The first part of this task is a simple matching game. Print Learner resource 7.1 and 7.2 on different coloured paper and get learners to cut them up (this could be done in advance). Learners then have to discuss what each term means and how the different terms might link together. Note: Learner resource 7.1 includes brief definitions to aid with this discussion but these could be removed to increase the difficulty if required.
- Learner resource 7.3 could be used after the first activity to define which areas of communication each function is concerned with. This is a good way of highlighting the notion that all theories are simply different models to help us identify patterns in language use.
- A ‘fun’ way to develop this is to get learners to become observers. Either visiting other lessons or simply (with prior consent, of course) noting usage within their other classes, learners can log how many adult utterances conform to the pattern of use Halliday/ Dore identified. Often learners discover the adult language is, pragmatically, much more difficult to classify but this is a useful way of reinforcing understanding/knowledge of the functions.
Interaction plays a huge role in the development of early language and so child-directed speech (CDS) can’t be ignored when approaching the unit of the exam, even though the exam question will always focus on the spoken language of the child(ren). It’s useful to learners to have a structure or method by which to comment on the ‘adult’ or care-giver utterances they see in acquisition transcripts. Hirsch-Pasek and Treiman (1982) investigated the links between CDS and the language used by dog owners to talk to their pets. They found marked similarities in the language features of both. Aside from the general interest of this in exploring the social context of how people view dogs, it also allows for a straight forward starter activity (See Learner resource 8.1).
Learners should attempt to script a stereotypical conversation between a parent and toddler before using this to suggest what the features of real CDS are. This could then be tested by looking at real data.
- Learners could test their theories against real data (see Lesson Activity 11) then use this to present a mini-investigation (Introduction/ Hypothesis/ Analysis/ Conclusion) which explores both the data and the process they followed to get to their conclusion. This could even provide an opportunity for independent research.
- CDS encompasses the theoretical work of many linguists and is, therefore, a fertile area for wider research. Learner resource 8.2 provides some potentially interesting prompts for learners to use. As with any research task, the product can be almost anything but it might be nice to ask learners to present their research into CDS whilst consciously using CDS to their peers.
- Another option would be to use this information to create a short advice film/leaflet/website for new parents identifying the features they can (and probably do anyway) use with their children.
It is important that learners know which particular language level their comments are based in as they can then ensure good coverage of the levels when giving a full and detailed response to data during the exam. Learner resource 9 is aimed at challenging them to do exactly that and should be seen as a synoptic activity for use towards the end of teaching the topic. Alternatively, it could be used as part of an introduction to the topic which tests learners’ intuitions about language acquisition. The resource can be used flexibly as meets the needs of class and teacher.
- Provide learners with a table listing the key language levels involved in acquisition and ask them to categories each utterance into the appropriate language level. They may also identify those utterances which are interesting at multiple language levels: /mɒlk/ for example, is interesting lexically, phonologically and pragmatically. Having identified the patterns in the data set, learners could then discuss which stage of acquisition the child is in and which theories are most relevant/applicable.
- If child directed speech has already been covered/discussed with a class, the learners could mock-up the rest of the interactions which surround the child’s utterances. This would allow them to show knowledge of CDS in a more creative way than simply reporting back on its features.
It is as important as it is useful to expose learners to different opinions and case studies when learning about CLA and there are several documentaries aimed at the general public which can be useful. One such documentary is the BBC Horizon: Why do we talk? episode (see resource).
Depending on what stage of the course this is shown at, learners could easily summarise/precis the documentary as a means of introducing some key concepts or, if used later in the year, learners could suggest improvements to the documentary if it were remade for a specialist audience (perhaps an undergraduate audience?). What should it include for a more specialist audience?
Key topics covered in the documentary are:
- Origins of language
- Dr Deb Roy’s ‘experiment’ or observation in acquisition
- Animal experiments and communication
- Mechanics of speech
- Impact of brain damage on speech and speech production on the brain
- Early Acquisition experiments
- World Languages and learning languages
- Noam Chomsky (“The Godfather”)
- Feral Children
- The Forbidden Experiment
- Genetic Origins of Speech (The KE Family)
- Linguistic anthropology
- Prof Kirby’s invented Language
- Given the breadth of this documentary, it is possible to develop this in all directions and at any point during the study of the course. One possible example would be for learners to attempt a simpler version of Kirby’s language experiment on a different class. This would give them valuable insights into acquisition but also improve their conceptualised understanding of semantic connections between words and grammar.
- Similarly, the sections on animal experiments and feral children could be used to introduce or follow up on Activity 3.
The exam question will always ask learners to use the data to “examine the language stage” of interlocutors and, even though this is a question designed to allow a range of responses covering relevant features and issues related to the data, it is important that learners develop a detailed understanding of the features of each stage of acquisition. Simply stating that an interlocutor is telegraphic or post-telegraphic and listing utterances in support of this statement is unlikely to lead to high-quality responses. More significant is that learners understand different models of engaging with stages of acquisition (Brown, Bellugi and MCNeil, Braine, Bowerman, etc) and use them to explore the data.
To this end, the following resource is a useful and detailed consideration of a number of stages of acquisition covering phonology, vocabulary and grammar. Whilst not exhaustive, it does represent a detailed representation of some of the key thoughts about language stages and is clearly referenced should learners wish to do further reading (see resource).
Learners, either in groups or individually (if individually this could be a good homework task), should use the prompt questions in Learner resource 11 to select and identify key information relating to stages of acquisition.
- Academic poster: This would be an excellent opportunity to introduce learners to the genre of academic poster (a requirement of the NEA portion of the course). Following their note making, in groups or individually, learners could prepare a poster and presentation for delivery at an in-class symposium on stages of development.
- To increase the challenge of this task, learners could be asked to précis the information without the prompt questions to help.
- Another alternative would be for learners to design teaching episodes to be delivered either to their class mates, another A-Level Language class or an audience of non-specialists (i.e. parents of young children).
NB: If considering differentiation, it is worth noting that the topics for Grammar group 2 and 3 are the most challenging and the most densely packed with information. The others are fairly straightforward; although Grammar group 4 is focused on some fairly simple ideas.
Almost any transcript can be used in the study of this course as long as learners remember to focus on child language not adult speech. Learner resource 12.1 and 12.2 are transcripts of the same child two months apart. They can be used in conjunction with any of the previous activities in this booklet or as standalone texts. One thing to note, however, is that given the age of the child, both transcripts feature more adult speech than would be found in an exam paper. Below are some lines of investigation which these transcripts may suggest and can be used as prompts should learners need them.
The most obvious (and perhaps the least useful) activity is to ask learners to produce an exam-style response to the data. As noted, this is not typical of the question paper’s transcript and so writing a response focusing just on the child’s speech.
- Lesson Activity 4 follow-up: Learners could identify the phonemes which are present in the data and practise naming the consonant sounds. They could then identify the patterns in the phoneme use in the data (substitution, addition, deletion, etc)
- Lesson Activity 7 follow-up: Learners could apply Halliday/Dore to the data and identify the purpose of each child-utterance. This could then be contrasted with data from an older child (or several pieces of data) to create a timeline for the development of certain functions. It is important to make clear to the learners that any such timeline would be a conceptual activity rather than a useful theoretical reference point.
- Lesson Activity 8 follow-up: Given the level of CDS in these transcripts it would be profligate to ignore the opportunity it provides for studying it.
- Learners could use the data to identify the word classes in use by the child. This is a fairly straight forward activity which focuses learners on the need to identify patterns in data rather than taking a line-by-line approach or analysing isolated examples.
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