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Studying children's eye movements advances the understanding of specific language impairment

  Photo: Unsplash/Rachel

Photo: Unsplash/Rachel

Anna Snchez-Jurez
The findings of a joint UOC and UB study have important educational and clinical implications in terms of helping to focus efforts on improving language production in the early treatment of the disorder

Specific language impairment (SLI) is an alteration in oral language acquisition that affects 7% of school-age children. Early identification of this disorder is important as it may cause subsequent learning difficulties at school, particularly in the areas of reading (dyslexia), writing (dysgraphia) and mathematics (dyscalculia). "People who suffer from this condition know exactly what they want to say but cannot find the words to express it", explains Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) University Master's Degree in Learning Difficulties and Language Disorders programme director, Lloren Andreu.   "Their range of vocabulary is low for their age, they have difficulty with verb conjugation and agreement, and, among other issues, omit articles, prepositions, conjunctions and weak pronouns", the expert adds. (For instance, they might say the following sentence in Catalan: “A nena jugaven pilota” instead of “La nena jugava a pilota”, leaving out the initial sound in the definite article ‘la’ and the preposition ‘a’, as well as incorrectly conjugating the verb).

The types of mistakes children with SLI make in the production of language have been extensively catalogued in a number of previous studies but very few have explored this group’s ability to understand lexical (word meaning) and morphosyntactic (meaning of a set of words, such as sentences) elements in real time. A joint UOC and University of Barcelona (UB) research project, based on a sample group made up of 24 children aged between 5 and 12 with SLI, 48 children demonstrating typical language development and 24 adults, has, over a period of 6 years (2013-2018), further explored this area of study through the application of eye tracking, a pioneering technique within the research group, which is based on recording eye movement.

This type of tracking enabled the team to analyse real-time, natural language processing, without any other tasks being introduced besides those of listening to sentences while watching related scenes. "The gaze point is related to what the subject is focusing on and the fixation duration period corresponds to the cognitive processing time for that which is being observed”, explains Andreu, a joint project leader.

The results of the ‘Anlisi de la comprensi lingstica en nens d'infantil i primria amb dificultats del llenguatge mitjanant el registre de moviments oculars (COMTELMO)’, [Analysis of linguistic understanding in pre- and primary school age children with language-associated difficulties through the recording of ocular movements] project, supported by the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (MINECO) as part of Spain’s National Programme for Fostering Excellence in Scientific and Technical Research, demonstrate that the children correctly understand language units in a context of simple sentences, such as " The girl ate / will eat the apple” or “The cat is on/under the table”. "This has enabled us to define the profile of difficulties for these children and identify that many of their issues in relation to simple sentences are connected with expression rather than oral linguistic understanding”, UB researcher and joint project leader, Mnica Sanz- Torrent, points out.

“The problems relate to the planning and production mechanisms of the message. These findings have therefore increased our understanding of the causes responsible for the alterations in the language of children with SLI and have important educational and clinical implications in demonstrating the need for intervention activities to be more focused on improving production in order to preserve the understanding of simple sentences in facilitating contexts”, the expert adds.

The project, led by the Cognition and Language Research Group (GRECIL UOC-UB) and which constitutes the doctoral thesis of researcher Spyros Christou, consisted of a series of six experiments based on the recording of ocular movements in the oral comprehension of sentences, with the simultaneous presentation of audio recordings and images of scenes.

The aim of the experiments was to analyse how and at what point in the oral comprehension of spoken sentences, different lexical units and their morphological markers are processed, as well as to further explore the role played by the interaction between their lexicosemantic and syntactic-grammatical characteristics.



Photograph of Lloren Andreu Barrachina

Lloren Andreu Barrachina

Lecturer in the Psychology and Education Sciences Department
Director of the university master's degree in Learning Disabilities and Language Disorders / Director of the Bachelor's Degree in Speech and Language Therapy

Expert in: Language acquisition and development; learning disabilities; language disorders.

Knowledge area: Educational psychology.

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Mnica Sanz

UB researcher

Expert in:

Knowledge area: Educational psychology.