Finestack Research Mission
Language is one of the most complex skills that humans learn and use. Moreover, only humans use language, and they do so with little conscious effort. When there are delays, disruptions, or impairments in language development it negatively affects the overall quality of a human’s life. Many children are born with disorders that result in significant impairment in language development, which in turn leads to long-term detrimental effects on their social interactions, academic achievement, and independence. Despite great need, very little is known how to best support the development of children with language impairment and eradicate negative effects of the impairment. Thus, my long-term research aim is to identify efficient and effective language interventions for children and adolescents with neurodevelopmental disorders, including children with primary language impairment, Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, or autism spectrum disorder. I have built a research program focused on developing new child language intervention techniques, better understanding the language profiles of children and adolescents with differing neurodevelopmental disorders, and measuring intervention outcomes of individuals with different language and cognitive profiles.
Development of Intervention Techniques
The acquisition and mastery of grammatical forms (such as plural and past tense markers) is a significant area of weakness for many groups of children with language impairment. Given this significant weakness and the lack of efficient treatment approaches to ameliorate grammatical deficits, I have established a programmatic line of research investigating the efficacy of an explicit, rule-based approach to teach grammatical forms to children with language impairment. When using an explicit approach, clinicians directly present the rule or pattern underlying the target forms to learners. These methods stand in contrast to traditional implicit modeling and recasting approaches, in which learners are expected to unconsciously acquire and use specific language forms.
Findings from my own early-efficacy studies support the use of an explicit approach and indicate that explicit approaches may be more efficacious than traditional implicit approaches (Finestack, 2014; Finestack & Fey, 2009). I am concluding a study funded by an NIH R03 grant (R03 DC11365) that further examines the use of an explicit approach when targeting novel (nonsense) grammatical forms. Preliminary results from this study provide further support of the use of explicit approaches with children with primary language disorder and children with autism spectrum disorder. However, evidence to date reveals that intervention outcomes are not uniform across all children, even children who appear homogeneous based on diagnosis. Thus, I am currently examining one correlate area that may moderate language learning, particularly when using an explicit approach: metalinguistic awareness. Last summer, I began collecting normative data (current n = 220, children aged 3 through 7 years) on a metalinguistic awareness probe. Results from this study will serve as a foundation toward developing a metalinguistic awareness program to use in conjunction with an explicit approach when teaching grammatical forms to children with language impairment. In the next two years, I plan to apply for funding from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) to support an R01 grant examining this multifaceted treatment approach for children with primary language impairment and children with autism spectrum disorder.
Using Language Profiles of Children with Neurodevelopmental Disorders to Measure Intervention Outcomes
As scientists develop behavioral and pharmaceutical treatments for individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders, there is a critical need to identify measures sensitive to language growth to evaluate clinical outcomes. I have completed a series of studies examining the language profiles of children and adolescents with fragile X syndrome or Down syndrome, two of the most common genetic causes of intellectual disability, to help establish the language profiles of these groups (Finestack & Abbeduto, 2010; Finestack, Palmer, & Abbeduto, 2012; Finestack, Sterling, & Abbeduto, 2012). Results indicate significant weaknesses in specific language areas; however, profiles vary depending on the measures used to evaluate language. Thus, I am currently developing an application for an R03 study to be submitted to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to conduct secondary analyses of data collected by Dr. Leonard Abbeduto at the MIND Institute at the University of California – Davis. If funded, the study will determine the measures most sensitive to language growth by comparing outcomes using a variety of measures. Additionally, this fall as co-PI with Dr. Abbeduto and Dr. Sara Kover at the University of Washington I will begin collecting data for a study funded by the Simons Foundation that examines the utility of expressive language samples to derive treatment outcome measures for children with autism spectrum disorder.
Thus far, through my program of research, I have developed and examined a novel intervention approach and improved our understanding of the language profiles of children and adolescents with language impairment. I am also starting to identify appropriate treatment outcome measures. Each of these pieces is essential to achieving my long-term goal to dramatically improve language interventions and treatment outcomes for children and adolescents with significant weaknesses in language development; however, there is still much research to be completed to ensure that children with language impairment reach their greatest potential.