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Abstract

Being able to see a talking face confers a considerable advantage for speech perception in adulthood. However, behavioural data currently suggest that children fail to make full use of these available visual speech cues until age 8 or 9. This is particularly surprising given the potential utility of multiple informational cues during language learning. We therefore explored this at the neural level. The event-related potential (ERP) technique has been used to assess the mechanisms of audio-visual speech perception in adults, with visual cues reliably modulating auditory ERP responses to speech. Previous work has shown congruence-dependent shortening of auditory N1/P2 latency and congruence-independent attenuation of amplitude in the presence of auditory and visual speech signals, compared to auditory alone. The aim of this study was to chart the development of these well-established modulatory effects over mid-to-late childhood. Experiment 1 employed an adult sample to validate a child-friendly stimulus set and paradigm by replicating previously observed effects of N1/P2 amplitude and latency modulation by visual speech cues; it also revealed greater attenuation of component amplitude given incongruent audio-visual stimuli, pointing to a new interpretation of the amplitude modulation effect. Experiment 2 used the same paradigm to map cross-sectional developmental change in these ERP responses between 6 and 11 years of age. The effect of amplitude modulation by visual cues emerged over development, while the effect of latency modulation was stable over the child sample. These data suggest that auditory ERP modulation by visual speech represents separable underlying cognitive processes, some of which show earlier maturation than others over the course of development.