Supporting Children With Developmental Language Disorder Amanda Van Horne is researching ways to more effectively help children learn and use language. Foundational Questions
Foundational Questions  |   January 01, 2018
Supporting Children With Developmental Language Disorder
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Article Information
Language Disorders / Foundational Questions
Foundational Questions   |   January 01, 2018
Supporting Children With Developmental Language Disorder
The ASHA Leader, January 2018, Vol. 23, online only. doi:10.1044/
The ASHA Leader, January 2018, Vol. 23, online only. doi:10.1044/
Name: Amanda J. Owen Van Horne, PhD, CCC-SLP, Associate Professor, University of Delaware
ASHFoundation Funding: 2012 Clinical Research Grant
What is the focus of your research?
Children with developmental language disorder (DLD), also known as specific language impairment or expressive/receptive communication delay, have poor academic outcomes and face lifelong challenges. I am particularly interested in understanding the cognitive mechanisms and the type of input that supports language learning in children with DLD. I try to answer this question using experimental studies and treatment research. My current work investigates how the type of input children receive affects their ability to generalize the target morphemes to new situations.
How did your award from the ASHFoundation lead to your current work?
Through my participation in ASHA’s Clinical Practice Research Institute (CPRI), I developed and strengthened an application for an ASHFoundation Clinical Research grant. That grant provided the pilot data for my research on how the type of verbs used to treat grammatical morphemes might influence treatment outcomes. I was able to develop the treatment protocol and all the materials needed for my treatment research. Naively, I thought I would also be able to carry out a complete treatment study at the same time—but while working on the ASHFoundation grant, I also learned how complex treatment research is.
I was awarded a K23 grant through the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), a training grant for faculty wishing to learn a new skill or move in a new direction. This grant allowed me to complete my study on how the choice of verbs influences treatment outcomes and to begin to train in computational modeling. The K23 has also helped me to learn more about different study designs for treatment research, which has made it possible for me to effectively supervise students pursuing those questions.
What do you hope to demonstrate through your research—or what has it already demonstrated?
My long-term goal is to better understand how learners’ cognitive mechanisms interact with the input they hear. I believe this information will improve our ability to provide treatment to children with DLD. My recent work has shown that if we pay attention to the properties of the language, we can improve treatment. So, for instance, when a child hears more complex verbs—those that depict ongoing events, are hard to say and are rarely used in the past tense—leads to better generalization than if the child hears verbs that depict completed events and are easily articulated and frequently used. For example, a child who hears recasts of verbs like “rested” or “hummed” is more likely to generalize past-tense “–ed “to a wide set of verbs than a child a who hears recasts of verbs like “jumped” or” played.” This counter-intuitive finding should be replicated and extended.
Similarly, if we focus on teaching cognitive verbs—such as think, remember, know, wonder, tell, decide— as vocabulary items, a side benefit is that we can increase the amount of complex syntax children are exposed to. The approach is possible because it builds on the properties of cognitive verbs, which occur in complex sentences more than other types of verbs.
Why did you choose this particular research focus?
I have been interested in language learning since I was in high school. I came into speech-language pathology as a way to merge my interest in languages with a desire to help people and a love of science. I can thank Esther Dromi, an SLP from Israel who was a visiting professor and child language researcher at UT Dallas, for encouraging me to go on for my PhD at Purdue with Larry Leonard, the Rachel E. Stark Distinguished Professor in the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences. At Purdue, my exposure to cross-linguistic work expanded my understanding of language impairment and the way that language structure contributes to language learning. I spent most of my early career trying to describe the language production of these children.
As a new professor at the University of Iowa, I was exposed to mechanistic and input-driven approaches to understanding development and learning. Role models within the department included Karla McGregor and Bruce Tomblin. As I came up for tenure, I shifted my focus to answering basic questions about language learning in hopes of having a larger practical impact. Treatment research was one way to merge questions about input, language structure and how kids learn into a unified research agenda geared to improve services to children.
How has ASHFoundation funding affected your professional life?
The ASHFoundation’s award gave me a boost in confidence at just the right time. I was questioning whether I was capable of starting something new, and the fact that the ASHFoundation reviewers believed in me was really important. I am also grateful that CPRI and the ASHFoundation have connected me with supportive mentors and the opportunity to change direction. Truly, I have had the good fortune to always have supportive mentors around me and I felt well-connected in the area of language-impairment research. Even so, the shift to treatment research was surprisingly difficult, but the ASHFoundation helped put me in the same room and start the conversation with people like Marc Fey and Steve Camarata, who have provided invaluable comments and suggestions as I have moved forward.
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January 2018
Volume 23, Issue 1