When Bryn Mawr Psychology Professor Leslie Rescorla first published her long-term findings in connection with the Language Development Survey in 2001, its relative simplicity, real-world applicability, and broad appeal made it that rare piece of research that's able to compete for headline space and air time with the breaking news of the day and the latest political and celebrity scandals.
The work was reported in many newspapers, including a long article in the Philadelphia Inquirer entitled "Early Speech Matters."
The Language Development Survey (LDS) is a vocabulary checklist Rescorla developed in the 1980s as a screening tool to identify "late talkers" at age 2. Since its inception, the LDS has been used as a tool to help determine whether children have expressive language delay or more serious conditions associated with being slow to talk, such as receptive language delay, intellectual disability, hearing impairment, or an autism spectrum disorder.
Rescorla's 15-year longitudinal study focused on children who had only an expressive delay at two and found that they had weaker language skills through age 17 than typically developing peers from the same backgrounds, even though they performed in the average range or above on language tasks.
While the first wave of media interest didn't take Rescorla by surprise given the nature of her research, she was caught a bit off guard when the initial research started grabbing headlines again recently.
A few weeks ago, Rescorla presented her work at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting in Vancouver. She participated in a symposium in which she presented her latest LDS research regarding use of the LDS in other countries. Among the findings she presented were that adaptations of the LDS in other languages can identify late talkers, that the words late talkers are acquiring are among the words most commonly acquired by typically developing younger children, and that many of these high frequency words are common across languages.
When Rescorla and her symposium colleagues participated in a press briefing at the AAAS meeting, a group of reporters from the U.K. were especially interested in her LDS findings. One of them asked her to send him a list of the "top" words from the LDS.
"There were about seven U.K. reporters there who all knew each other. I sent one an email with the list of 25 words from the LDS that are very common for both late talkers and typically developing children, as well as a few of my articles,” says Rescorla. “He sent the list to the other reporters and suddenly that was what everyone was focusing on.”
Outlets that led their coverage with the "Top 25 Words" included The Guardian, The New York Daily News, and The Independent. In all, more than 100 media outlets worldwide ended up running an article of their own or picking up a syndicated article on the topic.
The morning the stories appeared in the U.K. papers, Rescorla received emails, phone calls, and requests for press interviews from people in several countries, including the United States. In response to these requests, Rescorla emailed copies of her AAAS abstract as well as some of her articles and explained that the list of "top 25" words was not the most important aspect of her findings.
There have been some articles that have led with the newer research, including an article by the AFP News Agency that was widely syndicated.
"Researchers can't control what the media report about their work and rarely get the chance to fact check or shape the way the research findings are presented. Despite this, media attention about something like early language delay can serve a useful function because it may encourage parents to seek help for children who would benefit from assessment and intervention," says Rescorla.