Child Development of Verbal Reasoning Skills and Their Performance

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This study explored the relationship between typically developing children’s verbal reasoning skills and performance on national curriculum reading comprehension tests, cognitive and language skills. The study additionally investigated psychometric properties of the assessment such as inter-rater reliability and performance on different scenarios. The findings, limitations and clinical implications are discussed below.

Relationship between language and cognitive assessment and verbal reasoning skills The current study found that despite a small sample size, the relationship between verbal reasoning skills and vocabulary was found to be significantly significant. There was a positive correlation indicating that children who have a larger vocabulary are able to score higher in the LFT assessment. These findings add to the previous literature around verbal reasoning skills and vocabulary (Calvo 2004, Cain 1996, Harrison 2004). Lepola et.al (2012) report that vocabulary knowledge has been one of the best predictors of narrative listening comprehension and verbal reasoning skills (Snowling & Stevenson, 2004, Ouellette and Rodney 2006). This current study shows parallels with the literature around children who have speech, language and communication needs. Cain et.al. (2004) found that children who had poor vocabulary knowledge had limited verbal reasoning skills. They found it difficult to infer meanings of novel words using context, and were unable to draw information from the texts. Mitchell and Riggs (2000) found that in order for children to develop strong inference skills, there is a need in the increase of vocabulary in particular, mental concepts. When presenting children with LFT style tasks/ picture books, it could be important to extract key vocabulary to support the child’s ability to access their own schematas to increase their verbal reasoning skills.

Within this study the results concluded that there was not a statistically significant relationship between cognitive skills and verbal reasoning skills. This result does contradict the current research and due to the sample size should be interpreted with caution. Possible reasons behind the results in the study could be around the type of cognition assessed. The Ravens Progressive Matrices (Ravens, 1998) is designed to assess general intelligence and although working memory is a skill participant’s use within the assessment, it is not specifically targeted. Working memory has been widely discussed in the literature around verbal reasoning and inference skills. The work of Graesser et.al (1994) and Calvo (2004) emphasise the importance of working memory in order to keep the mental representation in the mind in order to access the appropriate vocabulary and background knowledge to effectively infer. It should also be noted that some studies have also found that children still effectively infer, despite lower intelligence when around a topic of their interest (Barnes et.al. 1996). The current study therefore adds to the mixed literature around cognitive skills and verbal reasoning skills.

When looking at syntax (comprehension and expression of grammar) and verbal reasoning skills, the small sample indicated a statistically significant relationship between the different variables. There was a high correlation between receptive grammar and verbal reasoning skills (rs=.796) and use of grammatical structures and verbal reasoning skills (rs=.611). There was not a significant relationship between sentence formulation and verbal reasoning skills (rs=.399). This could be interpreted that being able to comprehend grammatical structures helps to support verbal reasoning skills. Lepola et.al. (2012) study found that ‘listening comprehension at age four was a predictor of verbal reasoning and inference skills at age 5 and 6’ (p.275) in particular sentence memory was an important feature of listening comprehension at that age. This is an important factor when thinking about what skills are important for the development of verbal reasoning skills. Relationship between national curriculum reading comprehension scores and verbal reasoning assessments.

The results indicated that the relationship between national curriculum reading comprehension results and verbal reasoning skills was not statistically significant. Seen in Figure 6, there was a weak correlation between the two assessments. It was however noted that the participants who scored higher in the verbal reasoning assessment, scored high on the reading comprehension test. Sample size may have impacted on the results of the assessments. The results could also indicate that there is a threshold a higher performance in reading comprehension tests, in which children need to have adequate verbal reasoning skills. [LM1] Within this current population, no participant scored the ceiling in either assessment. This could be due to arguments emphasising that reasoning and inference skills develop between six and eleven years (Paris and Lindauer, 1976 and Paris et.al., 1977), cited in Kispal (2008) literature review.

When looking at the reading comprehension test, the questions were examining a range of skills such vocabulary knowledge, sequencing and explaining information, and make inferences and predictions from texts. The results were given as a total and therefore the assessments were not interpreted in terms of which areas each participant scored highly on and may not be sensitive to a participant’s verbal reasoning skills. The presentation of questions between the LFT assessment (Parsons & Branagan, 2005) and reading comprehension differed. The majority of the students scored in the top end of the assessment in paper one. The students scored lower in paper two which required an increased demand on inference and prediction skills (see Table 5). Within the reading comprehension test booklet paper one (An octopus under my bed) there were five questions out of nine, which were multiple choice. The majority of the multiple choice questions required inference and prediction skills. Within paper two, there was an increased demand on using open ended questions when asking inference and prediction questions. The LFT assessment (Parsons & Branagan, 2005) uses open ended questions throughout the assessment. Shohamy (1984) found that when assessing reading comprehension skills, multiple choice questions were ‘consistently easier than open ended questions within different texts’(p.157). All participants scored higher in the paper one assessment which had more multiple choice questions to support answers.

It may be important to think about the type of teaching the participants received in order to complete the reading comprehension tasks. They may have had specific teaching and practised tests around how to answer these type of booklets. Outlined in the literature, the level of teaching and support in enhancing verbal reasoning and inference skills is vital. Lennox (2013) emphasises that there are many concepts that children cannot discover independently and therefore the adult as the mediator plays a key role in supporting new understandings.

Background Knowledge of Different Assessments

Within the study, the results highlighted that there could be a statistically significant difference between the participant’s score between the scenarios based on their background knowledge. Although assessments were administered on a small sample, the results do link in with the current literature around background knowledge and verbal reasoning skills. Lennox (2013) emphasises that “background knowledge and reasoning skills are needed to predict, hypothesis, explain, imagine, infer, problem solve and evaluate.” (p.386)

Within the Level-A questions, the difference between scenarios was small. In order to answer the questions accurately the students are required to use the information in front of them. The difference between the scenarios were larger within LFT Level-C questions. These questions require higher-level thinking skills in which participants are required to draw on their background knowledge. For example, a participant responded to the Level-C questions ‘Which is better, TV or cinema/puppet show?’ differently. In the cinema question they scored 3/3 responding, “movies because you get to watch it bigger and dark”. Within the puppet show the participant scored 1/3 responding, “TV because puppet shows might be quicker.” The answer in the cinema scenario was specific in which the participant drew on their experiences. The participant’s answer in the puppet show demonstrated some understanding however the question was not answered as accurately due to lack of background knowledge. Pressley & Afferbach (1995) report that a reader has to have experiences in order for higher-level thinking to develop; “the richer a children’s word experiences are, the richer the child’s schematic knowledge is that they are able to draw on.” (p.54).

There was four instances in which the participants scored higher in the puppet scenario than the cinema scenario although did not affect overall levels. Other arguments have discussed that it is not only about background knowledge but also to do with being able to access it in order to answer inference questions accurately (Cain & Oakhill 1998).

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The Relationship Between Raters of the LFT Assessment

Inter-rater reliability is important in order to support the quality of assessments and increase the usefulness within the scoring process (Morgan et.al. 2014). There was two types of measures when looking at the inter-rater reliability within this study; correlation and ICC. The present literature (Rankin & Stokes 1998, Morgan et.al 2014 and Solarova et.al 2014) emphasise the importance of dual measurements of reliability in order to look at the strength of linear association and agreement. From the assessment data it can be found there is a strong inter-rater reliability between the three therapists. In Figure 12 there is a normal distribution of scores for rater three. This rater is a co-author of the LFT programme. As the author, co-wrote the scoring criteria, the normal distribution of scores may be due to truly understanding the rationale behind the scoring criteria. The results however did show that nevertheless two therapists who are currently practicing in the field correlated scores with the author. It should be noted however that all three raters were experienced Speech and Language Therapists and had experience in clinically administering and scoring this assessment, even when a participant’s answer was not presented in the scoring criteria. The high correlations could be seen as an indication that the scoring criteria within the LFT assessment is generally useful in being able to assess a child’s verbal reasoning skills. The current study does not however look at whether there is an agreement between an experienced therapist and a professional who has limited experience in scoring this assessment.

It should be noted however that there were 7/12 participants in which the level on the LFT would have differed, impacting on the recommendation of whether the child would require additional specific support. This difference may have an impact on outcomes for students with Speech, Language and Communication needs. It was seen in the results, that there was wider distribution of scores when the raters scored Level-C questions. As seen earlier, these questions require the ability to ‘predict, reflect on and integrate ideas and relationships’ (Blank et.al 1978a ). Perhaps, due to the variability of these answers in this level, the current scoring criteria does not aid a therapist in being able to effectively score the results. Solarova et.al (2014) highlight that the more items a scale comprising a raw score has, the more difficulties there is in order to reach a complete agreement of scorers. It may therefore be important to think about making the scoring more concrete and increasing the examples within the current assessment to allow more agreement amongst raters.

Limitations of the Study:

This study was limited by a small group size, which is a risk to the reliability of the results. This was particularly evident in comparison of language and cognitive assessments. Button et.al (2013) report that low statistical power which is due to low sample size can negatively affect that a statistically significant result is a true effect. The small group size also had a limited range of ages of participants. Due to the timing in the year, there was one pupil aged 6;0 years within year two. Future research needs to be conducted on a larger sample across the spread of the year in order to look at the extent of which age is a factor within the development of verbal reasoning skills and whether the statistically significant results are able to be replicated.

Other factors such as gender and English as an additional language were not investigated within the current study. Again due to small sample size, the current data was unable to be analysed in terms of whether there were differences amongst gender and whether bilingualism has an effect on verbal reasoning skills. Due to the sample size, there was one outlier in the data included in the results. This participant was lower than average within all assessments however due to a small sample size was included. This participant may have had an impact on the overall data and therefore the results may not be as reliable. If this research was to be replicated, a larger sample would allow for outliers to be excluded.

It should also be noted that only one school was recruited in a borough of London that was ranked in the top quarter in poverty rankings (trust for London REF). Waldfogel and Washbrook (2012) report that in the UK, there is a 20 month gap in vocabulary at school entry between the wealthiest and poorest. This could potentially not be representative of the typical population. It would therefore be important to conduct further research in different geographical areas in order to look at any additional factors such as socio-economic status.

The school is situated within a multi-lingual population. From the current data, 6/12 of the participants spoke English as an additional language. Although the questionnaire identified what languages were spoken, the researcher did not look at how long the child had been exposed to English. Cummins (1984b) examined the relationship between fluency and everyday conversation and the ability to use language for academic purposes. He found that children who start learning a second language after school admission may acquire a good level of fluency in everyday conversation but may take between five and seven years before they have caught up with the average monolingual children on measures of academic achievement. It should also be noted that the language assessments used are not standardised on the bilingual population.

The school provided the researcher with the quantitative scores of the national curriculum tests. As a result, the researcher was unable to look qualitatively at the way the participants had answered targeted questions in the booklets in order to look at whether there are comparisons to be drawn between the student’s ability to draw information from the text was due to verbal reasoning skills.

Clinical Implications

These findings may have relevant implications for professionals in supporting a child’s verbal reasoning skills using the LFT programme (Parsons & Branagan, 2005). Firstly it may be important to select a scenario that the child has experience of. The professional might also want to take into account cultural experiences with regard to a child’s score. Torr & Scott (2006) emphasise the importance of ‘relating the language to the child’s personal situation’ (p.161). The data coincides with the current research, around pre-teaching of vocabulary to support verbal reasoning skills. When implementing the LFT programme (Parsons & Branagan) in intervention, professionals may want to draw out the vocabulary from the picture presented to the child if they are using ‘picture and talk/ text’ styles. Cain et.al (2007) further emphasise this point particularly when attempting to increase an understanding within picture books.

These findings further support previous research (REF) around teachers creating opportunities to talk around books, and discuss inferences within the text from a whole class approach at an earlier age. Taggart et.al (2005) highlight that ‘story time can be an opportunity to develop children’s thinking’ (p.ix). It may be important to continue to support children in key stage one in making more inferences, when there are no other demands involved e.g. reading the text. This may scaffold a child’s ability to perform higher in their reading comprehension tests. The participants’ scores in the LFT (Parsons & Branagan, 2005) assessment were largely different to the examples in the book (see appendix item X). The authors of the book may want to revisit the scoring criteria in order to provide more detailed scoring guidelines, ensuring modern examples are included.

Future research directions:

  • A future study with similar assessments with a larger sample size across different schools in different geographic areas.
  • For future data to be replicated and explored in terms of gender, socio-economic class and English as an additional language.
  • To further look at the relationship between different cognitive skills (e.g. working memory) and verbal reasoning skills.
  • To further look at agreement amongst professionals who do not have experience with the assessment in order to look at whether there is still a strong agreement when using the scoring criteria.

Conclusions

The findings from the present study indicate that vocabulary, and syntax (receptive and expressive grammar) may correlate with verbal reasoning skills. There was a limited correlation between cognitive skills and verbal reasoning skills. There was not a significant relationship between national curriculum reading comprehension result and verbal reasoning skills, however participants who scored higher in the verbal reasoning assessment, scored high on the reading comprehension test.

When looking at the properties of the LFT assessment, there were differences amongst assessment scenarios based on a child’s experience. This may be an important factor for educational professionals when considering using the assessment with individuals, particularly individuals with English as an additional language with cultural experiences. The assessment currently does have an agreement amongst different raters, however the scores between the Speech and Language Therapists and the author of the programme varied largely when marking higher-level reasoning questions. A stricter criteria would be beneficial for accurate scoring of the assessment, particularly for professionals who have limited experience with the programme. The LFT assessment however is a quick, easy to administer assessment that would benefit from further analysis of its psychometric properties in order to support standardisation as a diagnostic tool.

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