Toddler tests speak for themselves

March 03, 2007

From the first smile to the first word, signs that a toddler is learning to communicate are a source of great joy for any new parent. But a child's inability to develop such skills at an early stage can be a source of angst. A new study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has come up with new tests for pre-schoolers to help recognise potential problems earlier.

According to Professor Shula Chiat and Dr Penny Roy of City University in London, these tests provide new indicators of the likelihood and nature of longer term difficulties, allowing for earlier and more targeted intervention.

"When children are not talking like their peers, parents want to know what the future holds", says Professor Chiat, "but there are no easy answers. Many 2-3 year olds will catch up with their peers within a year or two, but others don't, and the nature of their longer term language and communication problems will vary".

Unlike traditional assessments which focus on language itself, the four new tests probe 'very early processing skills' (VEPS) which are known to underpin language development. Together, they provide new insights into children's early difficulties and how these are likely to unfold. One of the tests assesses children's ability to pick out and remember the sounds of words by asking them to repeat real words and non-words. The remaining three tests target the kind of social and cognitive skills children require to discover the meaning of words.

The new tests were found to be quick, easy to administer and reliable. The different patterns of performance which emerged from a sample of over 200 clinically referred children were related to the type of language and social communication problems evident 18 months later, when children were 4-5 years old. Researchers also validated the contribution of standard clinical assessment for children as young as 2-3, but the new tests provided important additional information about a child's basic processing skills.

Professor Chiat and Dr Roy believe that these tests could make a significant impact on approaches to children with language and communication problems in the pre-school years. They constitute a viable set of assessments permitting early identification of difficulties with the forms and functions of language, and provide a more reliable and earlier foundation for deciding on appropriate intervention than is currently available.

Dr Penny Roy on 020 7040 4656 or e-mail

ESRC Press Office

Alexandra Saxon Tel: 01793 413032/07971027335, e-mail:
Annika Howard Tel: 01793 413119, e-mail:


1. The research 'Very early processing skills as predictors of later language disorders' was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. It was carried out by Professor Shula Chiat and Dr Penny Roy then at University College London and City University, now both at City University.

2. Methodology: The original sample of over 200 children, recruited from 4 inner London and 3 outer London Primary Health Care Trusts and 2 private clinics, were divided into 3 groups covering the 2-4 age range (Phase 1). Three quarters of the sample were boys. Almost all children were seen at home in two sessions lasting 1-1.5 hours with the pace of task determined by the child. At Phase 2, the children were followed up 18 months later at home and at school. The data collection included parental interviews, covering the child's medical and developmental history and the family's demographic and linguistic background, nonverbal IQ tests, as well as standard language assessments and the 'Very Early Processing Skills' tests.

3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2006-07 is £169 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes. More at

4. ESRC Society Today offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research and key online resources such as the Social Science Information Gateway and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities. More at

5. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peer review. This research has been graded as 'outstanding'.

Economic & Social Research Council

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