A cognitive structural analysis of referential communication performance of learning disabled second graders



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An exploratory study was conducted to interpret group differences in learning disabled and regular education second graders’ performance on a referential communication task in terms of neo-Piagetian theory of cognitive development. According to neo-Piagetian theory, there is a general ability (i.e., working memory) that enables a child to hold a certain number of features in mind at any one time. The study involved 30 learning disabled children and 30 regular education children from a metropolitan school district. The subjects served as speakers in a referential communication task where each speaker was asked to describe a black and white photograph well enough that an adult listener could identify the referent photograph from an array of the referent and three nonreferent photographs. The study focused on an interaction of speaker- and task- related variables. Speaker-related variables were listed as: (a) working memory, (b) understanding of the task, and (c) vocabulary repertoire. The manner in which the child understood and performed the task--executive schemes-- determined the style and accuracy of the encodings. Task- related variables were: (a) nature of the stimuli, (b) listener feedback, and (c) mode of presentation. Research questions were asked about the relationship of working memory and vocabulary to adequate descriptions, children's task understanding and encoding style, the relationship between potentially relevant features and steps of feedback, and the children's ability to use feedback in subsequent descriptions. Working memory was operationalized by two pretests, the Backward Digit Span Test and the Cucui Test. Stimuli for the referential communication task were 5 face photographs and 5 dog photographs. The child speaker was separated from the adult listener by an opaque screen. Feedback in the form of visual contrasts (i.e., nonreferent photographs) was given to the speaker if the message was not informative. Vocabulary repertoire was elicited by asking specific questions about each referent photograph. Independent variables were groups of learning disabled and regular education second graders and the 10 trials of face and dog photographs. Dependent variables for the communication task were number of potentially relevant features given in the initial encoding, number of adequate initial encodings, number of steps of feedback required before an accurate description was given, and number of relevant features in the posttest of vocabulary. Analyses of variance with repeated measures were performed on relevant features in the communication task, adequate initial encodings, and steps of feedback. Analysis of variance was performed on relevant features in the posttest of vocabulary. Intercorrelations were obtained for the dependent variables and Backward Digit Span and Cucui Tests. Additionally, proportions were used to determine effectiveness of feedback and styles of encoding. The groups differed not in the number of relevant features given in the communication task but in the accuracy of messages, in the need for feedback, and in vocabulary. The regular education group's performance was better in these measures of communicative effectiveness. There was no significant difference between groups in measures of working memory, indicating that differences in encoding style and accuracy of descriptions are not explained by amount of working memory but rather the utilization of working memory. An analysis of styles of encoding revealed that regular education children could switch from holistic to analytic styles as needed. LD children had more difficulty switching encoding styles and produced many irrelevant features. The results suggest that learning disabled children may differ from regular education children in the quality more than the quantity of their communication. Teachers can improve LD’s referential communication skills by (a) teaching relevant vocabulary and (b) using referential communication games to foster sensitivity to needs of a listener.



Learning disabilities, Interpersonal communication in children