Lexical acquisition in toddlers from Italian and immigrant low-income families

A large body of evidence has documented that the frequency and the quality of early language experiences predict receptive and expressive infant language skills (Hoff, 2006; Hudson et al, 2015). However, the quantity and quality of language experiences vary significantly depending on the socio-economic condition (Hart & Risley, 1995). Particularly, children from low-income families receive less language input and of lower quality than children from higher-income families, that places them at risk for language delays and subsequent learning difficulties (Fiorentino & Howe, 2004; Cabell et al., 2013). Moreover, many low-income families are also immigrant families, and bilingual children show slower rate of language growth in each language compared to monolingual children (Hoff et al. 2012). However, also in bilingual conditions the quality of early linguistic environment is likely to predict the early language development (Hoff, 2013).

The present longitudinal study examine the rate of lexical acquisition in toddlers from Italian and immigrant low-income families ‒ that is, one language learners and dual language learners from environment at-risk for language development ‒in order to:

  • compare developmental trajectories of receptive and expressive vocabulary in each of these groups, from 12 to 36 months, with Italian normative data
  • compare developmental trajectories of receptive and expressive vocabulary in one language learners (Italian group) and SES-equivalent dual language learners (immigrant group)
  • investigate contextual predictors of the vocabulary outcomes in these group of children, such as the quality of language input offered by the nursery school teachers and the narrative practices at home
  • use results to design intervention programs addressed to nursery school teachers of toddlers from low-income families

Around 100 toddlers attending six nursery schools with high percentage of low-income families (both Italian and immigrant families) in the municipality of Verona were followed longitudinally from 12 to 36 months, at 6-month-intervals. Using a multimethod approach, at each age point the child’s receptive and productive vocabulary were assessed using the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories (Primo Vocabolario del Bambino-PVB (Caselli, Stefanini, & Pasqualetti, 2007) ‘Gestures and words’ form (12-18) and ‘Words and phrases’ form (18-30), and nursery teacher-child communication observed during 10 min of interaction during nursery school routines. Further information was collected through questionnaires on sociodemographic data, language/s used at home, and home reading practices. The vocabulary skills in L1 of bilingual children are assessed in collaboration with cultural mediators.


vocabulary acquisition, toddlers, low-income families, home reading practices, dual language

Principal Investigator

Manuela Lavelli, University of Verona

Project Participants


60 months (September 2016-  )

Current State

Data collection accomplished; data analysis in progress; part of results already published; other publications in preparation.


Florit, E., Barachetti, C., Majorano, M., & Lavelli, M.  (2021). Home Language Activities and Expressive Vocabulary of Toddlers from Low-SES Monolingual Families and Bilingual Immigrant Families. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18, 296.

Barachetti, C., Majorano, M., Rossi, G., Antolini, E., Zerbato, R., & Lavelli, M. (2021). Vocabulary production in toddlers from low-income immigrant families: Evidence from children exposed to Romanian-Italian and Nigerian English-Italian. Journal of Child Language, 1-14.</span

Conference presentations

Florit, E., Barachetti, C., Majorano, M., Azzolini, S., Biondi, V., & Lavelli, M. (2021). Interazioni linguistiche al nido e sviluppo del vocabolario in bambini in condizioni svantaggiate, “XI Edizione delle Giornate Clasta”, online, 14-15 maggio.

Barachetti, C., Majorano, M., & Lavelli, M. (2018). Vocabolario in produzione di bambini bilingui a 24 mesi: evidenze dal confronto con monolingui e tra bilingui con differenti L1. InSimposio, Giornate CLASTA (Communication & Language Acquisition Studies in Typical & Atypical population) IX ed., L’Aquila, 18-19 maggio.