Research Communications

Ohio University receives $2.4 million grant for study on child language impairments 

ATHENS, Ohio (Feb. 21, 2011) — An Ohio University-led research team has received a $2.4 million grant from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders to study the underlying causes of sentence comprehension problems in children with a condition called specific language impairment (SLI).

More than seven percent of U.S. children experience SLI, which is characterized by significant delays in language development. These children struggle to make sense of the language they hear and experience particular difficulty with sentence comprehension. SLI puts children at serious risk for reading disabilities and low academic achievement as they get older, said Jim Montgomery, an Ohio University professor of communication sciences and disorders who is one of three principal investigators on the new project.

Jim Montgomery
Jim Montgomery is a professor of communication sciences and disorders in the Ohio University College of Health Sciences and Professions; Photo credit: Jody Grenert.

“Understanding the causes of oral sentence comprehension deficits in SLI is so important because they are such a strong indicator of poor academic development, especially poor reading comprehension,” Montgomery said. “If a child doesn’t understand auditory input, reading complex material becomes virtually impossible.”

The federal funding will allow Montgomery and collaborators Alex Sergeev, an Ohio University assistant professor of social and public health, Julia Evans of San Diego State University and Ron Gillam of Utah State University to pursue five integrated studies on approximately 300 children over the next five years. The children will be divided evenly into three groups: children ages 9 to 11 with SLI; age-matched children with typical language development; and younger children ages 7 to 9 matched for memory to the SLI group.

Montgomery and his colleagues will examine various cognitive abilities, including working memory (the ability to store information in memory while simultaneously processing other information) and controlled attention (the ability to sustain attention on incoming verbal information as well as switching attention between storing and processing information), and will test how these abilities relate to sentence comprehension. The children’s comprehension of four different sentence types, two with typical subject-verb-object word order (“The boy hugged the girl.”), and two with atypical word order (“The girl was hugged by the boy.”), will be studied.

The team’s goal is to build models that can help them identify which cognitive variables are the strongest predictors of sentence comprehension problems in kids with SLI.

In the second phase of the research, Montgomery and his colleagues plan to implement a large-scale clinical trials project to test new interventions on children with SLI. Currently, only one such intervention exists, and data on its effectiveness are weak, he said.

A new understanding of the relationship between cognitive processing and sentence comprehension “will allow us to start thinking about nontraditional therapies designed to target sentence comprehension deficits,” Montgomery said. “We don’t know what those will be, but the data we’re getting from these studies will help us figure that out.”

Written by David Piller

Contact: Jim Montgomery, (740) 593-1412, montgoj1@ohio.edu; Andrea Gibson, director of research communications, (740) 597-2166, gibsona@ohio.edu.