The impact of language input

By guest contributors:
Sonia Arora, MS
Maria Hartman, PhD
Ronda Rufsvold, MEd, LSLS Cert. AVEd
Elaine Smolen, MAT, LSLS Cert. AVEd

What we know and what we wanted to know

Language input refers to the exposure learners have to the language they are expected to acquire. That input can come from a number of sources, including family members, teachers and other children in the learner’s language environment. We know the amount and quality of language input is important in the development of hearing children, but how does this idea apply to children with hearing loss who may have delayed and/or incomplete exposure to spoken language? To explore this idea, the Program in the Education of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing at Teachers College, Columbia University set out to investigate the effects of adult language input on the quantity of language, vocabulary development and basic concept understanding of children who are deaf and hard of hearing who use listening and spoken language.

What we did

In our study, we worked with parents, educators and 3-5-year-old children across the U.S. in California, Missouri and New York. Within the group of children, some had hearing loss and used listening and spoken language and some were hearing. The study zeroed in on the language environment that surrounds the children, which was observed using the Language ENvironment Analysis system (LENA). The LENA is a small recording device (about the size of a small iPhone) that was placed in a vest or t-shirt worn by the child for two days (one weekend day and one weekday). LENA technology has the ability to automatically count the “quantity of language,” including the number of adult words spoken around the child, the number of turns that occur in conversation with the child and the number of times the child vocalizes. What is notable about LENA is that this information can be graphically depicted and given to both the parents and educators to provide feedback, as well as a visual representation of what the language environment truly looks like over two separate days.

Additionally, we collected data on the children’s knowledge of basic concepts (ex: most/least or before/after) using the Boehm Test of Basic Concepts (BTBC) as well as vocabulary knowledge, tested using the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, Fourth Edition (PPVT-4). After collecting this data, we conducted a series of statistical analyses to determine whether there is a relationship between the quantity of adult language and the quantity of the child’s language, their knowledge of basic concepts, and vocabulary skills.

What we found

After analyzing our data, we were not surprised to find that the number of adult words, child vocalizations, and conversational turns recorded by the LENA were all correlated. Parents who talked more were more likely to have children who talked more. Children who vocalized more were more likely to have talkative parents. All this talking led to more conversations. We know from past research that linguistically rich conversations are key for children’s language growth.

Some of our findings did surprise us. Previous research found a connection between parents’ socioeconomic status and the amount they talk to their children, but we found no difference in adult word count between families based on their income. Families from all income levels in our study talked to their children and engaged in conversations at similar rates. In our study, mothers with all levels of education interacted with their children at similar rates, but children whose mothers were more educated scored better on the PPVT-4. Interestingly, we found that the fathers’ education level was related to the amount of adult talk and number of conversations recorded by the LENA on the weekends. We wonder whether highly educated fathers spend more time at home on the weekends, talking to and interacting with their children.

We were also surprised to find no differences in language scores or the auditory environments for kids with and without hearing loss. All the children in our study scored similarly on the PPVT-4 and the BTBC and experienced similar levels of adult talk, child vocalizations and conversational turns throughout the day. It seems that the auditory-verbal intervention the children with hearing loss and their parents received at school may have helped to narrow the vocabulary gap with children with typical hearing. We wonder whether the children would have scored similarly on more complex language tasks. We were happy to see that the families of children who were deaf and hard of hearing were talking to them as much as they were talking to children with typical hearing. Other research has suggested that parents of children with hearing loss need to have more conversations and provide more opportunities to use language in order to close the language gap. We hope to explore this need in our future research.


Gilkerson, J., & Anderson, J. (2008). The LENA Natural Language Study. LENA Technical Report: LTR-02 2.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Paul Brookes Publishing, Co.

Hoff‐Ginsberg, E. (1994). Influences of mother and child on maternal talkativeness. Discourse Processes18(1), 105-117.

Huttenlocher, J., Waterfall, H., Vasilyeva, M., Vevea, J., & Hedges, L. (2010). Sources of variability in children’s language growth. Cognitive Psychology, 61, 343-

Weil, L., & Middleton, L. (2010). Use of the LENA tool to evaluate the effectiveness of a parent intervention program. Perspectives on Language Learning and Education, 17(3), 108-111.365.

Maria Hartman is a lecturer in the Program in the Education of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing at Teachers College, Columbia University. She teaches courses in language and literacy development as well as assessment and methods. She is also the coordinator of student teaching, supervising pre-service students in schools and programs throughout NYC. Previously, Maria was a classroom teacher in a school for deaf children in Brooklyn, NY.







Sonia Arora is a certified teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing with experience as an itinerant teacher. She is currently an adjunct instructor and full-time PhD student at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her education includes a BGS in speech, language and hearing from the University of Kansas and a MS in education of the deaf and hard of hearing from Missouri State University. 





Ronda Rufsvold is an itinerant teacher of the deaf as well as the mainstream support coordinator at the CCHAT Center in Sacramento, CA. She earned her BS in speech-language pathology, and her MEd in deaf education. She is currently completing her PhD at Teachers College, Columbia University.








Elaine Smolen is a doctoral student and National Leadership Consortium in Sensory Disabilities (NLCSD) scholar at Teachers College, Columbia University. Prior to beginning her doctoral studies, Elaine was as a head teacher at Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech/New York. She currently provides hearing education and consulting services in the New York area. Elaine received her MAT in deaf education childhood education and English from The College of New Jersey.

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