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Julie Schneider works with a visiting group of fifth-graders from the Independence School this spring in a STEM outreach program about brain science. Her new research project will focus on children’s vocabulary development.

Learning more words

Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

Researcher examines ‘vocabulary gap’ in low-income children

The 30 million American children in low-income families generally have smaller vocabularies than their higher-income counterparts, making them less prepared for school and less likely to succeed, studies have found.

But, University of Delaware scientist Julie Schneider points out, not every low-income child has a poor vocabulary. Her latest research project, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), seeks to determine what factors account for that variability.

“My research plans to clarify how environmental and cognitive influences can serve as protective factors against the vocabulary gap,” said Schneider, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Linguistics and Cognitive Science. She recently was awarded a highly competitive NSF postdoctoral research fellowship to study the issue.

“Specifically,” she said, “I am looking at how the type of language input you hear as a child and how your brain naturally learns language influences the number of words you know.”

Schneider became interested in the subject during her doctoral studies at the University of Texas at Dallas. She “wanted to know why some kids, from similar home environments, had objectively better language outcomes than others,” she said.

Combined with a personal passion for outreach activities to improve educational achievement for at-risk children, she has continued to focus her research in this area.

Her study at UD will recruit 60 children from low socioeconomic households and investigate the way they learn language as well as the quality and quantity of conversations they have with their mothers — both believed to be factors influencing vocabulary development. Their brain activity will be studied during learning activities, using functional MRI.

Schneider said she hopes the research will better identify which factors matter most for vocabulary growth. 

If so, she said, “We can actually begin to target those factors and move the dial on improving educational attainment in this at-risk population.”

More about Schneider and the NSF fellowship

Schneider earned her doctoral degree in psychological sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas, focusing on how children’s brain development during the school years supports language comprehension and word learning. In her research, she investigates both brain and behavior and is particularly interested in the impact a child’s home environment and socioeconomic status have on language development.

Her NSF fellowship provides $138,000 over two years to support her study of vocabulary development among children from low socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Co-sponsors supporting her training on the grant are Zhenghan Qi, assistant professor of linguistics and cognitive science, and Roberta Golinkoff, Unidel H. Rodney Sharp Chair in the School of Education and professor of linguistics and cognitive science and of psychological and brain sciences.

The grant was awarded as part of the NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Research Fellowship (SPRF) program and the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. SPRF is designed to prepare promising, early career postdoctoral researchers for scientific careers and to encourage them to perform independent research.

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