£1 million UEA project to support deaf children

Published by  News Archive

On 4th Jul 2022

A girl using sign language with an adult

Researchers at the University of East Anglia are launching a £1 million project to understand how to best support language development for deaf children born to hearing parents.

Many deaf children born to hearing parents experience a reduced access to language and start school with poorer language skills and learning outcomes compared to their hearing peers.

The UEA team will work with deaf babies and toddlers to develop new ways of tracking the impact that reduced access to language may have on cognitive development over the first two years of their lives.

And they hope that the four-year project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, will help improve early support for deaf children and their families.

Lead researcher Dr Teodora Gliga, from UEA’s School of Psychology, said: “We want to better understand how access to language shapes early cognitive development.

“One child in every 1,000 is born deaf, and the vast majority of these children are born to hearing parents. 

“Most hearing parents use a spoken language as their primary language which is at least partially inaccessible to their deaf child. Deaf parents however use sign language, which is fully accessible to the child.

“Many deaf infants born to hearing parents will experience reduced access to the main language used by their family.

“And while many families choose for their children to have a cochlear implant, many deaf children still enter school with less developed language and learning outcomes compared to their hearing peers.

“We want to better understand the large variation in communicative development and school readiness of deaf children born to hearing parents.”

The research will be led by UEA in collaboration with Goldsmiths, University of London, and Birkbeck, University of London. It will involve neuroimaging methods such as electroencephalography and eye tracking to determine how pre-verbal children’s brains respond to images of familiar or unfamiliar categories.

As well as utilising UEA’s bespoke Developmental Dynamics Lab, the team have partnered with Norwich Castle Museum to carry out tests in a ‘real-world’ setting where the children will be learning as they move around the museum’s immersive galleries.

Dr Gliga said: “Our project will have a particular focus on quantifying the early development of learning categories– which is a key building block for cognitive development.

“One way in which children discover categories such as ‘cars’, ‘dogs’ or ‘food’ is by learning that they share a common label – for example two different looking dogs being called ‘dog’. This is exactly the type of information that deaf children whose parents mainly use spoken language may be missing out on some of the time.

“We want to find out how a reduced access to labelling impacts on category knowledge in deaf children in hearing families. The research will also ask whether hearing parents of deaf children find alternative ways of communicating about categories with their children.

“Another important aspect of the project will be to characterise the impact that using sign language has on early learning. Some hearing parents of deaf children learn sign language, but it may take time for them to reach the fluency required for conversation.

“But even signing with lower proficiency may support the learning of categories and this may explain why deaf children that have some sign language exposure tend to fare better academically,” she added.

Dr Jen Gold, Director of Research at the Economic and Social Research Council, said: “We are proud that the Research at the Economic and Social Research Council is funding such incredibly important research on the language development of deaf children born to hearing parents. We hope the findings help both support services and parents learn more about enabling these children to thrive.”  

The team are looking for hearing families with deaf babies under one year old to take part in the research. To find out more, contact child.scientist@uea.ac.uk.

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