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Language Deprivation Early Detection Grant

Improving early detection for language deprivation in young children is coming soon. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) has awarded a $503,999 3-year National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to a team of individuals.


Dr. Naomi Caselli and Dr. Amy Lieberman, Assistant Professors in the program of Deaf Studies at Boston University, and Dr. Jennie Pyers an Associate Professor of Psychology at Wellesley College played a key role in obtaining the grant and leading this research.


The Boston University Deaf Studies program is committed to the issue of language deprivation. Faculty members involved are Todd Czubek, Andrew Bottoms and Bruce Bucci, the program director.


When asked how the BU Faculty members will be will be working together, Dr. Caselli said, “We are each working on it in different ways. This grant represents one piece.


Todd does a lot of consulting work with schools for the deaf around the country. Andrew and Bruce also consult with schools around issues of Deaf Culture and language. Bruce is really the visionary of us all.”


Our vision is to preserve language, and to promote the use of ASL and sign languages from around the world. Our view is that all languages, spoken, signed, English or French, are equally sophisticated and deserving of respect.  Rather than dividing along linguistic lines, we focus on the benefits and affordances of each language. ASL can benefit both Deaf and Hearing people alike. Deaf children who have hearing parents need access to ASL just as hearing parents who have deaf children need access to ASL. A shared common language enables us to be allies to one another.


Dr. Caselli says this grant wouldn’t be possible without all the hard work from LEAD-K, a national effort to pass state laws to put standards in place to ensure deaf children are not delayed in learning language.


We reached out to Dr. Caselli to learn more about their research and what they hope to accomplish. Take a look.




There are two main objectives in this project. The first was to understand the factors that affect early ASL vocabulary acquisition. We wanted to know, for example, which signs enter the vocabulary first and which are acquired later. We also wanted to know how vocabulary acquisition is affected by parental signing ability; if parents are learning sign language alongside their child, how does that change the child’s acquisition trajectory?

The second goal of the project was in response to the efforts by LEAD-K to pass laws in each state to make sure that all Deaf and Hard of Hearing children reach language acquisition milestones and are not falling behind. So the question is, how do we know if a child under the age of 5 is acquiring the appropriate amount of language? We want to develop three tests that can be easily administered by parents, teachers, and researchers to quickly identify whether a child is on track with their ASL vocabulary acquisition.


Dr. Robert Hoffmeister, Associate Professor Emeritus at Boston University has already developed the American Sign Language Assessment Instrument (ASLAI), an ASL test for school-aged children. But the new tests being developed are designed for children much younger to detect language deprivation early on.


Their goal is to develop 3 tests of early American Sign Language vocabulary to help parents, teachers, and language specialists identify if a child is falling behind.


Dr. Jennie Pyers explains their research that lead to these new tests:



Right now, we are taking the old parent checklist on sign vocabulary and modifying it. After we make the changes to that checklist, we will upload it and it will be live. From there, parents can fill out the checklist online. We are going to use this information from many parents throughout the United States with the intent to create a new test. The test will be shorter and easier to use for teachers in schools, early-support groups, and language specialists will be able to test deaf children to discover their language development. The new test is specifically for those 18-months old to age four, and the parent checklist can be used at any time from the ages of 8 months to three years.  


There will be a checklist for parents to note the words in their child’s vocabulary, an expressive language test where children will sign the name of a picture, and a receptive language test where children will match a sign to 1 of 4 pictures. These tests will be public so early detection will be possible.

If you would like to get involved in the research, or have a child that would like to be involved, please email them


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