Understanding a Common Language Problem
By Jennifer Wilson
Fifteen years ago, Leslie Altman Rescorla, professor and chair of psychology, launched a long-term study of late-talking toddlers — children, especially boys, who at age two speak fewer than 50 words, compared with the 200 words that other children typically speak at that age. The problem is relatively common, with about one in 10 toddlers exhibiting some form of delayed language, Rescorla estimates. She enrolled about 40 late-talking two-year-olds in her study, analyzed their language abilities and behaviors, and compared them to a group of children with normal language skills. Rescorla has tracked the group ever since to see whether their early problems with language persisted over time.
Rescorla has published a series of papers on her research with the late-talking toddler group and their comparison peers. She is now conducting a final age-17 follow-up of these delayed talkers and comparison children. “They were so tiny when their mothers brought them in all those years ago. Now they’re driving themselves in, and they’re graduating from high school,” says Rescorla.
Rescorla has collected a wealth of data on how the children in her study understand and communicate verbally. She has compared the groups on their vocabulary and grammar skills, their ability to repeat words and sentences, and their reading, spelling, writing and story telling skills. Her research has challenged common assumptions.
“It was commonly believed that late talkers who had normal intelligence, typical personality development, and good receptive language would be speaking normally by age 3. I found that wasn’t true. Only about half the children had caught up to age expectations by age 3, and about 25 percent were still delayed at age 4. For a few of the late talkers, the delay continued well into elementary school.
“From the data we have analyzed through age 9, the late talkers generally score close to the average range on most language and reading tasks, but they have significantly lower scores than the comparison children who had normal language skills at age 2. Most of the late talkers do not seem to have a language impairment by the time they are 6 or 7 years old, but their language skills are not as strong as those of children from the same backgrounds who had normal language development as toddlers,” Rescorla says.
Rescorla’s preliminary analysis of her two groups at age 13 suggests the same pattern. Although late talkers were not language or learning disabled at age 13, they demonstrated subclinical problems, such as lower vocabulary scores, weaker grammatical skills, and poorer verbal memory skills than the children who were not late talkers.
While tutoring children who are language delayed may not be necessary, Rescorla says that late talkers may benefit from practice in verbal memory and rhyming games, vocabulary-enrichment activities, and story reading. A licensed clinical psychologist and certified school psychologist, Rescorla sees how special attention can help late talkers in her role as psychological consultant to the Phebe Anna Thorne School, a nursery school affiliated with Bryn Mawr. The school offers a language-enrichment program for three- to five-year-olds who have speech and language difficulties. Speech-language therapy is built into the program, and language development for social and play interactions is emphasized.
Since 1993, Rescorla has also directed the Child Study Institute at Bryn Mawr. CSI staff members provide psychological assessment, therapy and counseling services, educational support, and speech-language therapy to toddlers, school-age children, adolescents and adults.
After receiving her Ph.D. in child development and clinical psychology from Yale University in 1976, Rescorla did a clinical internship at the Yale Child Study Center. From 1981 to 1985, she was a lecturer in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and continued her clinical training at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. In 1985, she joined the faculty of Bryn Mawr College.
Rescorla plans to continue her long-term late-talker research project as well as pursue new research projects. She has started to coordinate her research efforts with those of her husband, Thomas Achenbach, who also specializes in developmental psychopathology. A professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Achenbach is the author of widely used rating scales for assessing children’s emotional and behavioral problems. In the past few years, Achenbach and Rescorla have published new editions of the rating scales for preschoolers, school-age children and adults. The preschool scale includes the Language Development Survey, a vocabulary checklist Rescorla developed.
The couple recently spent a month in Japan and South Korea meeting with psychologists and psychiatrists who have carried out research using translations of the scales. At last count, the scales had been translated into 65 languages and been used in more than 4,500 research publications. Rescorla and Achenbach gave talks and workshops in Japan and Korea about recent developments in their empirically based approach to assessment.
“It is remarkable how similar the problem scores are across cultures,” Rescorla says. “This suggests that there is a pretty high correlation across cultures when it comes to the most and the least commonly seen problems in children. That is, children in Korea or Japan or anywhere else often have the same behavioral problems as those here in the United States.”
About the Author
Jennifer Fisher Wilson is the science writer for the Annals of Internal Medicine.