What's in your Briefcase?

“The comfort animals we bring along while assessing kids for Specific Language Impairment,” said Mabel Rice, Fred and Virginia Merrill Distinguished Professor of Advanced Studies and director of the Child Language Doctoral Program. “When kids hold stuffed animals, they find a way to talk to us.” 

Rice has always been fascinated with how people learn to communicate; her career began as a speech and language pathologist. Her focus shifted as she realized some kids struggle to develop basic language skills, such as describing an object’s color, while others easily learn their native language. 

Years later, Rice discovered that kids with language impairment often struggle with good grammar, so she co-authored the Rice Wexler Test of Early Grammatical Impairment to identify those who could use some help. “Everyone wants to be good at talking, to express what you are thinking,” Rice said. “It affects every part of your life.”

She has directed a 25-year study and is a pioneer in identifying and understanding language impairment to improve awareness and therapies. Evidence shows that language impairment is inherited, and the program is increasingly cross-disciplinary, involving linguistics, speech-language pathology, psychology and genetics. 

Rice said she has benefited significantly from the Merrill professorship, which has made her a better scholar. She was inspired to pay it forward with a fund for the program’s doctoral students and faculty. “The award will support the people who have been with us all along and help keep the brightest students coming here,” she said.