Present Research

Language is the most complex skill children develop. It is critical to all aspects of academic and occupational success, as well as to personal satisfaction. Yet roughly 20% of children encounter challenges learning language. A major goal of work in this laboratory has always been to advance our understanding of the underlying sources of those challenges. Much of this work has included children with hearing loss, but in recent years it has become apparent that some children with typical hearing may nonetheless experience delays in the development of the central auditory pathways; this leads to problems processing complex acoustic signals, such as speech. Conditions that can lead to these developmental delays include frequent ear infections as an infant or toddler or having been born prematurely. Although research into the potential effects of these conditions on the development of auditory and language skills has been ongoing for decades, much of this work has involved what are termed ‘convenience’ samples, meaning children of middle-class families. These samples are easy to recruit in university laboratories, but not necessarily representative of all children. It is our hypothesis that results from these samples may underestimate the deleterious consequences of frequent ear infections or premature birth. For that reason, we are examining the effects of premature birth and frequent ear infections on auditory and language development, taking care to include broader samples.

We are currently recruiting for this study, titled Poverty-Related Risk Factors for Auditory and Language Deficits in Children (PRALD; R01DC020918). If you are able to participate in this research, please complete the ‘Participate’ section at this website.

Past Research

Through early diagnosis, appropriate listening aids, and timely intervention, most children born with hearing loss can acquire the spoken language skills they need to succeed in school and participate fully in society. But professionals have long disagreed about what constitutes the “best” method of helping children with hearing loss acquire spoken language. That’s why some 20 years ago the National Institutes of Health – National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIH-NIDCD) decided to support research on outcomes for infants and toddlers diagnosed with permanent hearing loss. Dr. Susan Nittrouer oversaw two grants that studied these outcomes for the same groups of children: Early Development in Children with Hearing Loss (EDCHL; RO1DC00637) and Spoken Language in Adolescents with Hearing Loss (SLAHL: RO1DC015992). This study, encompassing both projects, followed children with and without hearing loss from age 1 year to age 14 years, examining psychosocial development, cognition, spoken language perception and production, reading, and writing. Combined, this was one of the longest ongoing studies of language acquisition in both children with hearing loss and their normal hearing peers. The findings of this study shaped future work, largely by revealing that deficits in suprathreshold auditory functions primarily hinder the development of phonological representations, leading specifically to later deficits with complex lexicosyntactic skills and literacy. These deficits can evade detection as ‘language’ deficits, leading to mismanagement in interventional approach.