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Children and Communication

Although childhood spans less than one quarter of the human life span, it has a dramatic impact on life-long learning and development. Nowhere is this impact more evident than in the field of communication. It is during these formative childhood years that we go from being utterly helpless non-linguistic beings to individuals capable of independently negotiating a wide variety of social challenges. Acquisition of the native language and communicative competencies that support these capabilities are shaped not only by our biology, but also by cultural forces, including those steeped in family traditions, schooling practices, media and the arts. Understanding the interplay between these forces offers unique insight into the developmental origins of communication as well as the ways in which children contribute to shaping the cultures in which they grow. 

Learning Objectives

  • Students will demonstrate an understanding of the nuanced interplay between biology and environment that contribute to building developmental foundations for communication.
  • Students will demonstrate in-depth understanding of how the unique cognitive, linguistic, and social competencies of children shape and are shaped by the media, arts, and traditions of the cultures in which they live.
  • Students will exhibit knowledge of typical and atypical communicative development throughout childhood.


Children and Communication Course Requirements



All students are required to volunteer at a hospital neonatal or pediatric unit, pediatrician’s office, daycare center, school, children’s museum, children’s library, children’s theater, television or media company, or other organization serving infants or young children and their families. It is possible to satisfy the volunteering requirement by devoting individual days to a number of different organizations or events. However, a minimum of 40 hours must be officially logged and signed off on by supervisors. Volunteer experiences will provide students with an opportunity to directly observe some of the behaviors and phenomena discussed in their classes, as well as apply what they have learned to interaction with children in real-life settings. 

Recommended opportunities for application and practice on campus: 

Independent studies
If a student develops an interest in a particularly focused topic within the module’s focal area (e.g., a developmental disorder of language, development of communication in a particular culture, the interface between a particular type of media and child development), they will have the option to pursue it under the direction of a relevant faculty member. These independent studies would culminate in either a literature review and synthesis, or a project (e.g., development of a children’s book with commentary regarding how it was informed by their studies). 

Research project/Faculty labs
If a student becomes interested in research in the area of children and communication, they will have the option to gain first-hand experience in one of the many laboratories on campus that study child development. Although research experiences will most likely be arranged under the independent study program, they would specifically culminate in a paper either describing research that they participated in or a proposal for research that they would like to conduct (and that might be submitted to school and university funding sources for subsequent implementation). 

Recommended opportunities for projects, practica, and internships off campus: 

To satisfy the required off-campus volunteering component, students have the option of participating in a more extensive internship. Internships can be found through the School of Communication’s EPICS office and through University Career Services. Students may also choose to participate in volunteer activities through the Center for Student Involvement or the Center for Civic Engagement. 

Community Building Activities: 

All students admitted into the module will meet as a group with the module coordinator (and other members of the instructional team and advisors as necessary) quarterly to discuss relevant experiences inside and outside the classroom. The purpose will be to update students on new courses and other related activities, allow them to ask question, and to provide an opportunity for the module students to get to know one another and have a forum for informal faculty interaction. 

In addition, once a quarter, the group will go on a field trip to participate in an activity related to children and communication (e.g., group volunteer day, trip to a children’s theater performance or movie, children’s museum). Post-event discussion will bridge these experiences with classroom learning. 

Students and faculty affiliated with the Children and Communication module will be invited to talks in relevant and applicable speaker series. Per faculty recommendation, students from the module may be invited to meet with speakers in group meetings or over meals. 

In the spring quarter, students who have completed the module sequence will present their capstone projects at a mini-module-conference. Students who are just beginning the sequence will be required to attend this event so that they can get an idea of the types of projects they will be expected to develop over the coming year. Capstone projects/portfolios will be presented at this annual mini-conference poster session to be attended by module faculty and students, along with interested graduate students, and relevant members of the Northwestern and larger community. 

Example student scenarios: 

As a first generation immigrant, Kaya is fascinated by how cultural values and traditions are learned by children as they grow up. She considers everything that she learns in the Children and Communication Module through this lens. In the course of her studies, she realizes that forces outside the child’s immediate family can be heavily laden with lessons on the nature of the majority culture.  And while volunteering at an after-school program for Chicago elementary school children, she has a chance to observe first hand how children respond to different sorts of messages in the media they are exposed to. She wonders whether different mediums are more powerful than others in transmitting cultural values and ideals. For her capstone project, she develops plans for a research study that will compare the influence of live theater to television on social attitudes, specifically testing the hypothesis that live actors will have a greater impact given that they are less removed from reality. Kaya plans to follow through on this plan as part of her honor’s thesis and is considering a career as a research scientist. 

Jolie is on the fence. She knows that she ultimately wants to work with children, but should she pursue a career as an elementary school teacher or should she follow her dream to be a performance artist? She enrolls in the Children and Communication Module in hopes that it will illuminate the best path for her. Through her integrated coursework she learns about the importance of early education, and in particular, recent federally funded initiatives to improve early learning about science. In her internship with a local children’s theatre company, she hones her production skills and has opportunities to learn directly from children in the audience what they take from their theatre experiences. In her capstone project she develops plans for a play that helps young children learn about simple physical principles by personifying them in the central characters. She thinks that she might pursue a career in educational children’s theater. 

Quinn is interested in speech-language pathology because two of his five younger siblings are seriously delayed in their language development. In his Children and Communication module coursework he learns that many language problems experienced by children have their roots in poor processing of auditory information. While volunteering at a clinic that serves children with language disorders, he observes children working through computer-based intervention programs focused on improving auditory processing. Based on what he has learned about how children learn from digital media, he thinks he can improve upon these programs. For his capstone project he outlines plans for how this might be accomplished. He thinks he might someday launch a software development company devoted to improving tools for the clinical diagnosis and treatment of language disorders in children. 

Alexander simply adores kids and is pained by the plight of so many who suffer from the effects of poverty in cities like Chicago. He wants desperately to help, but doesn’t feel he has the knowledge and skills to do be maximally effective. He signs up for the Children and Communication Module in hopes of improving his potential impact.  In his coursework, he learns how important interactive book reading is to the development of children’s vocabulary and literacy skills. In light of this, he is struck by how little reading goes on, and indeed how few books are even available, at the low-income childcare center where he is volunteering his time. For his capstone project, he develops a plan to launch a non-profit organization to improve this state of affairs. He fully intends to follow through on this plan by recruiting, training and organizing student volunteers to provide high quality book-reading experiences to disadvantaged children in Evanston and Chicago. 


Students complete a Capstone in the final Spring quarter of their module experience. The capstone project requires a poster presentation integrating what the students learned in their courses with their observations and experiences interacting with children in real-world settings. The presentation may be based on ideas for an intervention, research study, media project (e.g., children’s book, video game, movie), theatrical production, business venture, museum exhibit, outreach program, curricular plan, or other topic as approved by the module’s coordinator and committee. Alternatively, the presentation might report on the student’s volunteer experience, what they learned from it, and how their observations there connect with their class-work. The project will be presented at an undergraduate mini-conference in the Spring.

In addition to the presentation, each student will be required to independently write a two-page paper detailing how their project incorporates what they have learned from all classes in the module, as well as their volunteer experience. This written document is meant to help the student reflect on whether they have achieved the learning objectives of the module.

Portfolio: Students are expected to build a portfolio of materials representing their accomplishments in the area of children and communication as they progress through the module. Papers, research studies, and artistic projects would be appropriate to include in this portfolio. Students are also strongly encouraged to keep a journal in which they reflect upon the big picture points learned within and across classes (e.g., How does what you are learning in class connect with synergistic activities off-campus? Can you anticipate how they might interact with upcoming courses? What questions do you hope will be answered as you move forward?). This will be due with the capstone presentation/paper.

Sponsoring Departments: Communication Studies; Communication Sciences & Disorders; Theatre

Module Coordinator: Elizabeth Norton

Committee of Instruction: Megan Roberts, CSD; Molly Losh, CSD; Rives Collins, Theatre; Lynn Kelso, Theatre, Ellen Wartella, Communication Studies

Module Advisor: Rick Incorvati

How to Enroll

Currently not accepting applications.

This module is open to all NU undergraduates. 

Students interested in the Children and Communication Module should submit a Module Declaration Form no earlier than the fall quarter of their sophomore year. Applicants should also schedule a meeting with Rick Incorvati, the module advisor, to discuss eligibility, program requirements, completion plans, and any concerns they may have. Applications will be evaluated on the basis of student performance in relevant courses and activities, and applicants will be notified promptly of their acceptance to the module.


Grade Policy

Students must maintain a B- average in module coursework. If their average falls below B-, they will not be permitted to submit a capstone.