U.Va. Curry Professor Recognized for Work on Language Impairment

May 28, 2009 — LaVae Hoffman, University of Virginia assistant professor in the Curry School of Education's Communication Disorders Program, has won a 2008 Editor's Award of the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research for findings on a ground-breaking study of school-age children who have Specific Language Impairment.

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In presenting the award, the journal recognized Hoffman's research as meeting "the highest quality standards in research, design, presentation and impact for a given year."

Hoffman's award is shared with eight colleagues who co-authored the article, "Efficacy of Fast ForWord Language Intervention in School-age Children with Language Impairment: A Randomized Controlled Trial." The article published findings of a multi-year, multi-site study backed by $4.5 million from the National Institutes of Health.

According to Hoffman, children with Specific Language Impairment are "children who fail to develop age-appropriate abilities to understand what is being said to them and to put sentences together to express their ideas and meet their communication needs.'

Children with this deficit often make frequent grammatical errors, have difficulty structuring sentences, do not comprehend the meanings of words as well as their peers do, fail to consider the needs of their listener or are unable to revise their errors.

For example one 8-year-old child with this type of communication deficit described a picture of a boy holding a gift with this statement, "Him a present and he's waiting what's inside," Hoffman explained.

While everyone has difficulty talking occasionally, the communication of children with this type of impairment is frequently convoluted, ambiguous, repetitive, halting or difficult for their listeners to follow. Often children whose language abilities are impaired have difficulty learning to read and write well enough to support their academic achievement.

"This type of language impairment is puzzling because we do not yet know why a substantial number of children fail to develop adequate language skills," Hoffman said. "These children do not have hearing or vision problems. They have normal intelligence. They do not have gross neurological deficits such as cerebral palsy or seizure disorders. They do not have emotional or behavioral disorders, and they usually come from homes with parents and caregivers who are supportive and nurturing; yet for some unknown reason their language skills do not unfold as other children's do."

It is estimated that about 5 percent to 7 percent of children have this type of communication problem.

"To put that number in perspective, that means that while the rate of autism spectrum disorders is currently one in 150 children, the rate of Specific Language Impairment is approximately eight to 11 per 150 children," Hoffman said.

Ultimately, the findings of this research establish evidence to support service decisions that must be made by speech-language pathologists, parents and educators across the nation on behalf of children with Specific Language Impairments.