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College of Education > News and Publications > News: Jan. - March 2012 > Morgan Heads Research on Vocabulary Delays and Early Childhood

Morgan Heads Research on Vocabulary Delays and Early Childhood

Institute of Education Sciences awards $700,000 to a research team to investigate relationships between children’s oral vocabulary knowledge early on and lower academic and behavioral readiness later in life.

Paul Morgan(March 2012)

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Delays in learning spoken words during the toddler and preschool years have been theorized to negatively impact their readiness for school entry. For example, vocabulary delays may interfere with children’s learning to read, solving mathematics problems, and self-regulating their classroom behavior.

Yet few longitudinal studies have empirically evaluated whether and to what extent these patterns are evident. Examining the extent to which vocabulary delays increase children’s risk of being unready-- academically or behaviorally—to start school is therefore important, particularly because oral vocabulary knowledge is potentially malleable and can be targeted through early intervention efforts.

A new $700,000 project awarded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences to a team of researchers from Penn State, Temple, and the University of California, Irvine will address these limitations in our knowledge base by investigating whether delays in children’s oral vocabulary knowledge at 24 and/or 48 months of age predict lower academic and behavioral readiness for school entry at 60 months, as well as whether sociodemographic, gestational, birth, and family characteristics moderate or mediate this relation.

The project, titled “Risk factors and services for vocabulary delays in early childhood: Population-based estimates,” addresses five research questions.

  • Which factors most strongly predict children’s vocabulary knowledge at 24 months of age, particularly the risk for vocabulary delays?
  • Which children are most likely to receive specialized services for developmental delays or disabilities when they are 24-48 and 48-60 months of age?
  • Which children are most likely to have vocabulary delays at 48 months of age?
  • Which factors predict lower cognitive and behavioral functioning at 24 months?
  • Which factors predict lower pre-academic and behavioral functioning at 48 months of age?


These questions lead to the project’s final and over-arching question: Which children are most likely to display lower academic and/or behavioral readiness for school at 60 months of age? In addition to evaluating the contribution of vocabulary delays to lower school readiness, the project also investigates a previously untested hypothesis that early intervention or early childhood special education services (e.g., speech language therapy) help to increase the cognitive, pre-academic, academic, and behavioral functioning of children with developmental delays or disabilities. Collectively, the project’s activities should help identify malleable factors that may undermine at-risk children’s school readiness, and thus constitute important targets for intervention.

Paul Morgan, associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling, and Special Education, and principal investigator of the project, will coordinate the project’s research activities. The project’s analyses will be based on data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort, a federally sponsored, nationally representative dataset of children born in the U.S. in 2001. The research group also includes Marianne Hillemeier, associate professor of heath policy and administration at Penn State; George Farkas, professor of education at the University of California, Irvine; and Carol Hammer, professor of communication sciences and disorders at Temple University. Support for the development of the grant proposal was provided through an SSRI-facilitated project awarded to Morgan.