IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Joint UCL and IOE project on iconicity in word learning awarded ESRC grant

4 November 2016



Dr Chloe Marshall of the UCL Institute of Education is working on a project led by UCL Psychology and Language Sciences, in partnership with the University of Brighton, that has been awarded a £655,000 grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

The project, 'The role of iconicity in word learning', will investigate the extent to which parents and caregivers use iconicity in their interactions with two to three-year-old-children (in the form of onomatopoeias, intonation and gestures), and whether these clues promote word learning.

Speaking of the project, Professor Gabriella Vigliocco, Principal Investigator, said:

"Understanding how children acquire language is one of great challenges for the social sciences, with critical implications for education and for intervention in atypically developing children. Much of the existing research has looked at learning as a process of associating arbitrary words to objects and actions in the world. However, language in face-to-face contexts is also iconic: speakers produce gestures, use intonation and onomatopoeias that brings sensory-motor properties of referents to the mind's eye (e.g., when a caregiver elongates the vowel in "taaall" to refer to a very tall person). This iconicity in the input to children could therefore help learning and especially when referents are not present."

Dr Marshall said:

"Parents and early years' professionals use many strategies to support children's language learning, but they are generally unaware that they are doing so. This project aims to uncover some of those strategies with the ultimate aim that they can be harnessed by all who care for and work with young children. Many children on school entry do not have the language skills they need to access the curriculum, and so boosting their language prior to school entry must be a priority. This exciting and very timely project capitalises on the joint expertise of researchers at UCL, the IOE, and beyond."The project explores three principal themes:

  • Do caregivers use iconicity (in phonology, gestures, and/or prosody) in their input to children?
  • Does iconicity aid children's word learning?
  • Is iconicity especially useful when talking about objects which are absent in immediate environment?

The project builds on past work undertaken by the UCL Language and Cognition Lab, especially work carried out on deaf signers of British Sign Language (BSL) as part of the activities of the Deafness, Cognition and Language (DCAL) research centre of which Professor Vigliocco (co-director) and Dr Marshall (associate) are part.

As this research has the potential for important impact on learning and development in the early foundational years, the team will actively involve educators and developmental speech-and-language therapists by setting up a researcher-practitioner network to disseminate and discuss implications of research within the community of practitioners.

The project focuses on two to three-year-old children because this is a time of remarkable vocabulary growth in which communication is often about things not present in the immediate environment, and at which children understand and produce iconic gestures.



Media contact

James Russell
Tel: 020 3108 8516
Email: james.russell@ucl.ac.uk