Neurobiological Markers of Language and Literacy in Bilingual Children

CO-INVESTIGATOR: Alisa Baron, University of Rhode Island
MENTOR Nicole Landi University of Connecticut
CO-INVESTIGATOR: Vanessa Harwood, University of Rhode Island
MENTOR Susan Brady, University of Rhode Island
THEME: Neuroscience

ABSTRACT: The goals of the proposed project are to employ neuroimaging techniques and a broad set of language and literacy measures to investigate literacy development for bilingual, Spanish-English first and second grade students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds and for monolingual students also from low SES circumstances. With these two groups of students, we will use sophisticated neuroimaging (EEG) and neurophysiological (eye-tracking) technologies in a 2-year longitudinal design to examine the neural mechanisms associated with critical language and literacy skills necessary for reading success. By measuring foundational skills associated with early reading acquisition, as well as by monitoring changes in those skills across two additional years of reading instruction, we will determine how neurobiological markers of literacy shift over time, if these markers can be used to predict subsequent literacy achievement, and if there are contrasts between the neurological profiles of monolingual and bilingual students. Further, within each group we will assess whether there are neurocognitive differences between students who are higher or lower performers of reading. With the broad set of language tools (i.e., phoneme awareness, vocabulary, syntax) and literacy measures (i.e., letter knowledge, decoding, word recognition, text reading and comprehension), the data also will allow analysis of whether there are differences in the learning profiles associated with low SES monolingual status versus low SES bilingual status. 

We project that the findings will lead to gains for the scientific community regarding knowledge of the specialized cortical features associated with childhood bilingualism, with development of reading prowess for bilingual students, and of the neurocognitive characteristics of low SES students who are either bilingual or monolingual. These areas that have not been adequately studied.  In turn, we anticipate that the clinical community may gain insights from the neurocognitive results, as well as from the set of language and literacy instruments, regarding predictors of reading success. Lastly, we expect that the findings will inform the design of needed language and literacy interventions for low SES monolingual and bilingual students.

RELEVANCE: Children from impoverished backgrounds are at a marked disadvantage in terms of reading readiness compared to their higher socioeconomic (SES) peers; those who are also bilingual have even greater disadvantages. Through neurological assessment, as well as language and literacy testing, the present study seeks to augment knowledge of the neurocognitive learning profiles and language skills of first and second grade, low SES students who either are monolingual English or bilingual Spanish-English speaking children. By identifying key markers of literacy performance, we can develop targeted interventions to reduce achievement gaps for these two groups of students.