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Alper receives William Penn Foundation grant to expand early language intervention

Rebecca Alper, assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders, was awarded a three-year, $500,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation to expand on a caregiver-implemented early language intervention for children in low socioeconomic status (SES) households. Alper will lead the team alongside co-principal investigators Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, professor of psychology and Stanley and Debra Lefkowitz Distinguished Faculty Fellow at Temple’s College of Liberal Arts and Rufan Luo, assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University–Camden. The intervention, called Duet 2.0, aims to be accessible and easy-to-use, demonstrating how to incorporate high-quality interactions into everyday situations, such as grocery shopping or going to the park, in a way that fosters language development.

Existing caregiver-training programs often face challenges in addressing achievement gaps in children from low-SES households, who on average experience fewer and less rich early language interactions than do children in middle- or high-SES households, placing them at risk for poorer early language skills and, as children grow older, worse academic outcomes.  

“The families with the greatest need can be the most difficult to access,” said Alper.

Duet 2.0 is an expansion of the team’s previous study—The Duet Project, a community-based participatory research initiative in collaboration with the Maternity Care Coalition and funded by the William Penn Foundation, Bezos Family Foundation, Early Head Start, and Tioga Foundation. For the first iteration of Duet, the team created training modules with animated and real-life video examples of high-quality, caregiver-child interactions. The modules synthesized a wealth of research on what makes early interactions high quality. Duet was piloted with a sample of families with children around 12-24 months in low-income households who were receiving home visiting services.

“What we look for is that the caregiver and the child are both participating around points of shared interest, that the caregiver is paying attention to what the child is interested in, and that they’re responding to what the child is communicating about,” said Alper. “You see back-and-forth interaction in which the child has a chance to participate, to build up the conversation and keep it going.”

Duet 2.0 differs from the pilot project in two key areas. The first phase of Duet 2.0 will involve translating those materials into Spanish. To ensure that the materials are not only linguistically accurate but also culturally relevant, Alper and her team will work with collaborators at the Maternity Care Coalition to recruit a focus group of Spanish-speaking families, as well as a trained interpreter and translator.

While the pilot intervention was delivered in person by home visitors, Duet 2.0 will provide the materials directly to families in a “light-touch, public health model,” says Alper. The modules will be distributed via DVDs and portable DVD players (to ensure that families can view them regardless of internet access), and remote interventionists will be available through phone, video, and other forms of communication.

For recruitment, data collection, and dissemination researchers are partnering with Temple University Hospital’s Department of Pediatrics, as well as the Maternity Care Coalition and Health Federation of Philadelphia. In addition, the training modules were developed in close collaboration with community partners, something that Alper says makes this project innovative.

“They review every word of the script,” she said. “Such research partnerships make sense not only scientifically, but also in terms of cultural factors. In the animations, what kinds of food are we showing, for instance? Are we showing scenes that participants might not be able to relate to?”

After delivering the intervention, researchers will evaluate the project through a variety of measures, including participant retention, the amount and type of language interactions between caregiver and child, and the number of back-and-forth “turns” in the interaction. The team also has developed an extensive plan for disseminating the training modules, including a plan to develop a Duet website—making the materials widely available and enabling the team to track dissemination.

Learn more about the Language, Literacy, and Learning Lab on its website or Facebook page. 

— Chris Sarachilli

Posted:  April 19, 2019