Dr. Mabel Rice

Expert Exchange

The Pursuit to Help Children Better Learn and Understand Language

Dr. Mabel Rice at the University of Kansas studies language acquisition in children who struggle to grasp vital verbal skills. Her fascination and life-long study of delayed language development arose from experiences working with young children – like Steve.

Steve was a four-year-old boy attending a special school and seeing Dr. Rice for speech pathology assistance in recognizing and naming colors. Even after he had been seeing Dr. Rice for months, Steve remained unable to distinguish between red, yellow and green. “One day I asked him, ‘what color is this?’ And he said, ‘yellow.’ And I said, ‘well, actually that’s red.’ Steve looked up at me, and said, ‘why do you call that red?’ And I realized I didn’t have a very good answer other than ‘well, because it is red.’ Over the years Dr. Rice has become increasingly curious about why certain children have delayed language development.

Dr. Rice is collaborating with geneticists from Scotland and the University of Nebraska-Omaha.  She is working with Dr. Hashim Raza, Assistant Professor at Child Language Doctoral Program at the University of Kansas (KU).  Dr. Raza previously studied the genetics of stuttering at the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) as a visiting fellow. At KU, he is extending his genetics studies to children with language impairments. These collaborations are leading methods to explore the genetics of higher cognitive abilities like language and trace how delayed language acquisition is genetically passed through generations.

Additionally, Dr. Rice conducts companion studies in Perth, Australia on language acquisition in twins. Studying the differing patterns by which children learn to perceive and comprehend language in nearly genetically identical twins provides her another method of solving delayed language development’s inheritance puzzle. Since Perth and Kansas City are nearly identical in population distribution, educational levels, and language, Dr. Rice can give the Australian twins the same language tests used for children in Kansas City. She has been researching data on about 2,000 twins and their families at specific ages between from the date of birth and age fourteen. 

Right here in Kansas City, Dr. Rice has collected data from approximately 4,000 children with delayed language development. She also studies language in the affected child’s siblings and parents as family history is one of the strongest predictors of language impairment.  After affected children reach adulthood, she extends her study into their children.  Thus, Dr. Rice has created a unique, multi-generational research process that spans over thirty years that allows her to see how delayed language development occurs and changes in families over long periods of time.

Dr. Rice’s lab is one of the only groups in the world to collect genetic, foreign, and local data on delayed language development, and she hopes that this unique combination of data will be able to resolve many of the issues surrounding poor language acquisition. Her team is working on an app approach and also distributing information to physicians and teachers to better assist students with language-learning challenges.

“This is a rare privilege,” Dr. Rice says. “I feel very deeply about the need to assist these children whose differences are so misunderstood by other people…And we need to do better job making them feel valued while providing the tools  they will need to grow and prosper.”

Mabel L. Rice, PhD is a Fred and Virginia Merrill Distinguished Professor of Advanced Studies and Director of the Child Language Doctoral Program at the University of Kansas.