In the Language and Learning Lab, we are conducting studies on children’s early cognitive development. We are especially interested in how children begin to use symbols to communicate and learn about the world. Several projects in this line of research are currently underway in our lab.
Learning from picture books
Picture books are a fun and interactive way to learn about the world. We are particularly interested in how picture books can be used to teach science and social skills to young children. In some of our studies, we compare various features of picture books such fantastical elements (imaginary places or characters) or genre (informational vs narrative) to investigate which features best promote science knowledge. In other studies, we are exploring the features that help promote social skills such as sharing.
Children’s language processing
Children encounter many fantastical events in stories (e.g. Peter Pan takes off and flies). When preschoolers are asked explicit questions about how stories work, they show their understanding that events in fiction can contradict what they know about the way events happen in the real world. However, children’s answers to explicit questions often differ significantly from their interpretation of events in real time. We are interested in children’s moment-by-moment interpretation of language as they hear a brief story unfold. We use non-invasive eye-tracking technology to follow children’s gaze while they watch and listen, and use where they look as a guide to what they think will happen.
Children’s learning through language
How do we learn new information in the world without experiencing it for ourselves? What if new information we come into contact with is different from what we have learned before? In our research, we try to answer these questions by assessing how children update their knowledge about objects or people using different sources such as verbal information, pictures, and stories. In another line of research, we are also interested in how children reason and make inferences about events and characters. We look at how they change their own knowledge in light of new evidence or by combining information, and how they come to new conclusions through logic.
Children’s thinking about what might have been
When we think about the past and what might have been, we are thinking counterfactually. This is a complex and fascinating ability that involves keeping in mind both the way things are and the way things could have been. To study the emergence of this ability in children, we show them short stories on the computer and then ask them how the story could have ended differently if certain events were added or removed. We think counterfactual reasoning may be an important precursor to scientific reasoning, and are beginning to look at how the two abilities are related.
Children’s understanding of speakers’ intentions
Communication among people does not always convey explicit messages. As adults, we are usually good at understanding the gist of indirect messages. In this series of studies, we explore children’s ability to make similar inferences. At what age can children appreciate the social use of language in situations where the critical piece of information is implied rather than explicitly conveyed? What are some factors which help or hinder their understanding in these situations? Children either watch very short pre-recorded videos or read a storybook, and then are asked questions about what the characters in these scenarios think.