Current Research

Last updated: 7/10/18

Welcome to the Little Learners Lab!

Our research team is dedicated to advancing knowledge of how young children think and learn. In particular, our work aims to explain why the development of young children varies so widely across the areas of language, cognition and motivation. We are also very interested in the consequences of those differences for early literacy and school readiness more broadly speaking. The ultimate goal of our research is to develop new approaches to early education and intervention that will optimize outcomes for all children, thereby helping to close persistent achievement gaps among our nations’ children. We are currently working on three projects related to these goals.

* Please note: We are currently not recruiting any new participants for our research studies.


Specifying the nature of the ‘vocabulary gap’

A sizable ‘vocabulary gap’ persistently differentiates socioeconomically at-risk children from their peers as they enter school. This disparity unfortunately contributes to many children falling further behind with respect to their literacy and academic achievement. Our goal is to better understand the nature of socioeconomic disparities in early vocabulary by moving beyond the traditional focus on the sheer number of words known by children to an exploration of potentially fundamental differences in children’s word learning skills. There is strong theoretical reason to predict that the very same factors that have been implicated as contributing to disparities in children’s acquired vocabulary (e.g., amount and quality of the speech children hear) will also influence the development of skills and strategies that support word learning. If disparities in basic word learning skills contribute to disparities in accumulated vocabulary, then the most effective approaches to eliminating the ‘vocabulary gap’ might look quite different from those that are widely implemented today. Our hope is that by focusing on teaching children how to learn new words, rather than solely on teaching specific words, early intervention programs can ultimately have a greater impact on helping at risk children catch up to their peers and to success in school. (National Science Foundation #1421494)


Exploring the consequences of individual differences in preschoolers’ causal stance

With the support of the National Science Foundation (#1535102), we are exploring individual differences in young children’s causal stance (i.e., their preference for, and attention to, causal information). Having established that children vary widely in their attunement to causal information, we are now attempting to specify the origins and consequences of this variability (Alvarez & Booth, 2011, 2014). In addition to considering long-term relationships to school readiness and scientific literacy, this project will explore the potential role of parents in shaping the very foundations of children’s scientific literacy before children even enter preschool.


Individual differences in preschoolers’ causal reasoning

We are also conducting a parallel line of investigation into variability in early causal reasoning skills. We are particularly interested in how individual children’s causal reasoning skills might contribute to their problem solving capabilities, early scientific literacy and longer-term engagement with science. If important predictive relationships are detected, our next step will be to evaluate the malleability of children’s early causal stance and causal reasoning skills, with the hope of developing educational interventions that will optimize outcomes for at risk children, and help to narrow persistent achievement gaps in science.