Seminar: Acquisition of complex language in a changing society

Seminar: Acquisition of complex language in a changing society

Date: 15 May 2019 Venue: Cambridge Assessment The Triangle Building, Shaftesbury Road Cambridge CB2 8EA
Time: 16:00 - 18:30
Type: Seminar Fee: Free

Speaker: Professor Jane Mellanby

“Today, much of the language used daily for communication via social media and smartphones is very simple in comparison to that which we use in face-to-face interactions or in writing and reading.  However, complex language remains vital to progress in many fields of human endeavour, such as scientific discovery, history and politics. An understanding of counterfactual conditionals, for example, is required for the political application of lessons from history – the comprehension of a sentence such as ‘If Hitler had not invaded Poland, the Second World War might not have happened’. How would a child or adult unequipped with complex language skills be able to understand this, or indeed political arguments such as the Brexit negotiations, or appreciate the rich literature of our cultural heritage?

It is well known that children from disadvantaged backgrounds often start school with poorer language skills than their peers. We believe that deficits in these skills, and more specifically complex grammar comprehension, may have serious long-term consequences for the outcomes of disadvantaged children, as they prevent proper understanding of many subjects taught at primary and secondary level, such as history and the sciences. However, although much language acquisition occurs implicitly in the early years, some can continue to be taught explicitly.”

At this Cambridge Assessment Network seminar, Professor Jane Mellanby will be discussing research that focuses on how intervention in nurseries and schools might work to expand the language skills of disadvantaged children and improve their chances in life.

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About the speaker

Jane Mellanby - photo

Professor Jane Mellanby, Hon FRCP. MA (Oxon) in Physiology. DPhil in Biochemistry at University of Oxford and Emeritus Fellow of St Hilda's College 

"In 1970, with the help and encouragement of Professor Larry Weiskrantz, I set up a Neurochemistry unit in the new Experimental Psychology building in Oxford in order to facilitate collaboration with Psychologists. My own work involved the investigation of physiological and behavioural changes in an experimental model of temporal lobe epilepsy which I had developed. In the 1990s, acting as a governor of a local comprehensive school stimulated my interest in education and I eventually moved my research area to working on factors that affect academic achievement in secondary school children and university students. 

My main research interest is in seeking reasons for underachievement in academic performance among normally developing students. I have been actively involved in the development of our verbal and spatial reasoning test for children (VESPARCH) for the last 15 years through a series of improved versions which have been piloted in several thousand children. This on-line group test does not depend on the children’s reading ability since the stimuli and instructions are presented aurally through headphones. Comparison of Vesparch scores with a child’s school performance level allows us to identify those who may be performing below their reasoning ‘potential’. We can then follow them up to investigate possible causes of underachievement. While, as would be expected, the commonest cause is poor reading ability, problems with short-term and working memory and with oral language also contribute independently. 

I have a particular interest in the contribution of the understanding and production of complex grammatical forms, such as the conditional, to children’s academic performance. While normally-developing children will have acquired simple grammar before entering primary school, the acquisition of complex forms requires interactive exposure which children may not have encountered. In collaboration with teachers, I am devising ways of introducing exposure to complex grammar in the classroom and of finding ways of targeting children with this specific need. Another area of my work is investigating reasons for the academic under-performance of female undergraduates relative to their male peers in some subjects at Oxford University. This occurs despite there being no difference between the sexes in measured intelligence and the women having performed at least as well as the men at school."

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