Wanted: ‘Child scientists’ for toddler-development study

GREEN BAY — The Language Learning Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay is once again inviting local parents to join their children ages 2 years through 4 years in participating in a major study of toddlers’ skill and language development.

Parents will be asked to schedule a single trip to the University for a 30-minute session in which the parent will gently guide his or her child through a few simple play exercises. The session will be observed and documented by a University researcher. Each child will receive a toy or book as a small gift.

Assistant Prof. Jennifer Zapf of the Human Development faculty directs the Language Learning Lab, now in its third full year of operation. Zapf says she and her student assistants already have made significant observations about toddlers’ abilities to learn words and grammar.

Their newest study involves the question of whether seemingly small differences in word structure or complexity can affect a toddler’s ability to remember not only the word itself but also the associated object or picture. (For example, Zapf explains, the word “dogs” requires more effort to pronounce, because of its back-to-back consonant sounds, than the equally short word “keys.”)

“This particular study is easy as far as the child goes,” Zapf says. “They look at some pictures and then play a game where they identify the pictures they’ve seen in the past. It’s fun for them, and it’s a study we are very excited about… We’re going to see if the complexity of a word makes it harder or easier to remember those pictures.”

Parents won’t receive any sort of individual analysis of their children’s session — “This isn’t about comparing, or assessing where any one child is with regard to development,” Zapf says — but a parents’ newsletter does summarize cumulative findings.

Human Development and Psychology are among the University’s most heavily enrolled majors, and Zapf draws from among these and others in recruiting research assistants. She has four student assistants this semester who will help with the new project as well as ongoing studies of children’s language acquisition.  Zapf joined the UW-Green Bay Human Development faculty in 2007 from Indiana University, where she assisted with IU’s nationally recognized cognitive development laboratory.

To participate in the project, contact Jennifer A. Zapf, Assistant Professor, Human Development and Psychology; University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, 2420 Nicolet Drive, MAC Hall C310; e-mail zapfj@uwgb.edu, phone 920-465-2490. Parents can learn more at the project website, http://www.uwgb.edu/learnlab/

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