The AMBLE research projects undertake a long-term integrative approach to understand learning trajectories and cognitive development in children during the transition from infancy to early and middle childhood, and evaluate school-based interventions.
The research projects aims to examine how the interplay between individual and cultural forces gives rise to different patterns of behaviour and cognition as well as investigating how behavioural differences are manifested in the brain. In order to trace relevant cognitive information processes and functions that underlie school-related skills and to investigate cognitive, behavioral and neural change across children’s development and learning trajectories, several neuropsychological methods and brain imaging techniques will be used. The research projects includes longitudinal studies as well as randomized controlled trials focusing on different types of interventions: vocabulary, mathematics skills as well as physical and cognitive stimuli for improving neuroplasticity and learning.
These studies described below will provide unique data across time with regard to the predictive power of early brain and cognition measures for late preschool/early school behavior in the areas of literacy and mathematics and the effects of intervention.
STUDY I &II: BRAIN, MIND AND CULTURE: PATHWAYS TO MENTALIZING LANGUAGE AND READING
We aim to study the development of mentalizing (theory of mind; ToM), executive functions, precursors to reading, early and later reading, as well as the relationships between these variables. We will also study the neurological correlates of these functions by the use of evoked response potential (ERP). An increasing number of studies have shown that infants already during their first year make a clear distinction between the physical and mental world. They interpret changes in the physical world as cause-effect chains and the behavior of people in terms of knowledge and belief structures, i.e. intentionality and action (theory of mind, ToM). Intentional understanding and recall memory in infants has been shown to be related to later cognitive development; however the role of language at the early stages is still unsettled.
In a longitudinally designed investigation (STUDY I), 200 pre-school children, two years of age, will be recruited and followed during five years. Tests covering ToM, executive functions, ERP, phonemic awareness, alphabet knowledge, decoding and comprehension will be measured yearly, in order to investigate relationships between brain function, ToM, executive functions and metalinguistic skills in relation to literacy. These tests will also bee applied in STUDY II (se below).
In a currently ongoing longitudinal study (STUDY II) focusing on development and enhancement of reading skills and their precursors, 370 children have been followed from age 4, with seven waves of measurement so far. Currently the children are in grade 2. In this study, pre-school interventions to develop phonological skills have been investigated, and relatively strong and lasting effects on phonology and reading skills have been established. It is also clear that the poorest performer benefitted the most from the early intervention. The longitudinal data collected in Study II will be used to identify subgroups of children based on their reading performance in grades 3 and 4, and on the available information about their precursor reading skills, primarily phonological awareness and letter knowledge.
During the overlapping years between Studies I and II (years 4-6), a subset of the measures used in Study I will be identical to those used in Study II. This will provide excellent conditions for bridging across the entire age range 2-12.
STUDY III: VOCABULARY INTERVENTION
The aim is to evaluate the potential of vocabulary intervention designed to enhance vocabulary size and conceptual knowledge to increase reading comprehension.
We have recently carried out intervention studies addressing decoding deficiencies in Grade 2 and 3. Overall, reading comprehension, spelling, phoneme awareness and reading speed were enhanced by structured intensive combined phonological and orthographic based reading interventions. In a cluster randomized controlled trial (STUDY III), we will address the comprehension of text using a vocabulary training intervention that will also focus on reading comprehension strategies in order to work out the meaning of new words and concepts.
The vocabulary training program will be carried out in whole-class settings for 18 weeks. Students will be assessed at using a test battery (pre- and post-intervention, as well one year later) including reliable measures of trained and untrained vocabulary, reading comprehension, word decoding, spelling, reading speed, logical skills, arithmetic skills, and mathematical concepts. These test batteries will to a large extent overlap with the tests used in the mathematics intervention (see Study IV below).
Based on the behavioural test results, a subsample will be identified consisting of one group of students with poor vocabulary and one group with above average vocabulary performance. In this way we can examine possible differences between poor and good comprehenders, and we can also examine possible intervention effects.
STUDY IV: MATHEMATICS INTERVENTION
We intend to evaluate an intervention designed to improve the ability to understand and use number through a focus on reasoning about concrete, iconic and symbolized representations of numbers.
In an ongoing study, we have carried out an intervention in the domain of number in preschool class where children have been guided through a series of explicit activities related to numbers. For each activity (problem) children manipulate concrete objects, construct iconic or abstract representations and reason about the relationship between the different representations with peers. Result shows that it was possible to enhance the performance of mathematics in the domain of numeracy, compared to the control group that received regular mathematics teaching. The effects were also sustained one year later.
In the present cluster randomized controlled trial (STUDY IV), we will transfer the design and principles from the previously evaluated intervention to grade 2, and in particular, increase the training of reasoning. We will also in a more systematic way make use of four conceptual metaphors for number sets of objects, length segments, movement along paths and object construction/deconstruction. This study is an intervention in grade 2, where students will be randomized to a control group or mathematical training program. Students will be assessed using (pre- and post-intervention, as well one year later) a test battery including reliable measures of logical skills, arithmetic skills and mathematical concepts with a focus on number system knowledge tests that have been shown to predict functional numeracy.
STUDY V: PHYSICAL AND COGNITIVE STIMULI FOR IMPROVING NEUROPLASTICITY AND LEARNING
The purpose with the study is to examine whether executive skills can improve by a method that combines training of executive and motor skills, and whether any training benefits can be transferred to untrained cognitive tasks and academic achievement. Another aim is to assess whether these possible effects differ from those achieved by aerobic exercise. We also aim to investigate if cognitive and motor improvements could be linked to changes in neural activation patterns.
The aim of this study (STUDY V) is to examine acute effects of a method that combines executive and motor skill training on executive functions, and whether these possible effects differ from those achieved by physical exercise. Students in grade 2 will be randomized into the following groups:
- Cognitive and motor skill task
- Aerobic exercise
- Control group (no exercise)
Evaluation will be performed (pre-post-intervention) using neuropsychological test of executive function together with the neuroimaging technique functional Near InfraRed Spectroscopy (fNIRS) to assess brain activation.