Allison Barney and Bonnie Brinton, Communication Disorders
Children with language impairment (LI) present with “a significant impairment in the acquisition and use of language across modalities” (ASHA, 1993). LI is a prevalent disorder affecting 7% of kindergarteners (Tomblin et al, 1997). LI limits a child’s ability to acquire language, to establish relationships with others, and to succeed in school. In addition, children with LI experience a range of social problems including withdrawal, exclusion, and peer victimization (Fujiki & Brinton, 2017). Recent research has indicated that children with LI have particular difficulty with emotion understanding (Brinton & Fujiki, 2014; Spackman, Fujiki, & Brinton, 2006). That is, they struggle to infer and anticipate the emotions that specific situations elicit. This research examined the ability of 6 boys (CA 6:10 to 12:4 years) with LI to identify emotions experienced by characters in story books.
Six boys (CA 5:8 to 11:2 years) participated in the study. Each child was identified with LI on the basis of formal standardized testing and evaluation by the school special education team. Over a ten-week period, a speech-language pathology graduate student (SLP) shared five story books with each child. Books were selected based on clear story structure and rich emotion content. As she presented the story, the SLP employed a series of interactive prompts to explicitly highlight and teach the emotions of prominent characters within story events. After sharing each book, the SLP presented six probes associated with specific events in the story, each of which elicited a specific emotion. For each probe, the clinician presented a picture from the story and asked, “How does (character) feel?” followed by “Why does (character) feel (emotion)?” Emotions varied from book to book but included, happy, sad, angry, scared, surprised, disgusted, and guilty. Participants’ responses to all probes were transcribed and analyzed for accuracy.
Tables 1-6 illustrate participants’ responses to the story probes. No child responded to all probes accurately. As expected, children identified happiness most often, but even so, they could not always indicate why a character felt happy in a given situation. Participants frequently confused negative emotions such as sadness, fear, and anger.
Table 1: Participant 1 (CA 7:3) – Responses to Emotion Probes
Table 2: Participant 2 (CA 5:8) – Responses to Emotion Probes
Table 3: Participant 3 (CA 6:4) – Responses to Emotion Probes
Table 4: Participant 4 (CA 11:2) – Responses to Emotion Probes
Table 5: Participant 5 (CA 10:11) – Responses to Emotion Probes
Table 6: Participant 6 (CA 5:9) – Responses to Emotion Probes
The children with LI had notable difficulty identifying basic emotions experienced by characters in relatively simple stories. This was the case even though they had received explicit instruction about those emotions just minutes before the probes were administered. These difficulties are concerning, because understanding characters’ internal states and emotions is essential to story comprehension.
American Speech Language Hearing Association (1993) Definitions of communication disorders and variations, ASHA, 35(Suppl. 10), 40-41.
Brinton, B., & Fujiki, M. (2014). Social and affective factors in children with language impairment. In C. A. Stone, E. R. Silliman, B. J. Ehren, & K. Apel (Eds.), Handbook of language and literacy: Development and disorders (2nd Ed.)(pp. 173-189). New York: Guilford Press
Fujiki, M., & Brinton, B. (2017). Social communication intervention for children with language impairment. In R. McCauley, M. E. Fey, & R. Gillam (Eds.), Treatment of language disorders, 2nd Ed. (421-449) Baltimore: Brookes Publishing.
Spackman, M. P., Fujiki, M., & Brinton, B. (2006). Understanding emotions in context: The effects of language impairment on children’s ability to infer emotional reactions. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 41, pp 173-188.
Tomblin, J. B., Records, N. L., Buckwalter, P. Zhang, X., Smith, E., & O’Brien, M. (1997) Prevalence of specific language impairment in kindergarten children. Journal of Speech Language Hearing Research, 40, 1245- 1260.