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Word Learning Lab Projects

​​The Children's Vocabulary Project 2017-2022 [back to list]

McGregor PI

Funding provided by the National Institutes of Health

The objective of this project is to discover how children's word learning changes over developmental time. The central hypothesis is that the challenge of word learning at different ages varies with the word-learning situation, the component of the word to be learned, and the development of underlying cognitive mechanisms. The project designed to test this hypothesis tracks children in Iowa as they learn and retain new words over the course of one week during each of four years beginning in 1st grade. The project involves two specific aims: 

1) to establish a developmental trajectory of word learning in stronger and weaker learns that determines a) how learning and development vary with the learning situation and b) how learning and development vary with the component of the word to be learned
2) to specify the cognitive mechanisms underlying this developmental trajectory. 

The expected contribution is a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of word learning challenges and how these challenges change during a crucial developmental period. By addressing this issue, this project will offer new possibilities for tailoring preventive and therapeutic interventions in light of the child's developmental needs. ​

Improving STEM Outcomes for Young Children with Language Learning Disabilities by Intervening at the Intersection of Language and Scientific Thought 2017-2019 [back to list]

McGregor, PI

Amanda Van Horne, Susan Wagner Cook, Renee Cole, Co-PIs

Funding provided by the National Science Foundation

The sophisticated language of science can be a barrier to the learning of science, and this is especially true for children whose abilities to produce and comprehend language are deficient. The purpose of this project is to test interventions that have the potential to ameliorate language as a barrier to science learning. To isolate the active ingredient, two separate interventions—one addressing grammar and the other addressing vocabulary—will be compared to a science only control condition. The participants will be preschoolers and kindergarteners who have developmental language disorder (DLD) a prevalent condition that impedes the development of vocabulary and grammar. Early intervention could be key to preparing future secondary and post-secondary students with DLD for the successful acquisition of STEM knowledge and the pursuit of STEM careers. The applied objective is to change these students' learning trajectories before significant gaps in scientific knowledge have developed by integrating supports for science-relevant grammar and vocabulary into an early science curriculum.

The design will be a Randomized Controlled Trial with random assignment of participants to one of three intervention conditions: science only, science + vocabulary supports, and science + grammar supports. Small-group inquiry-based science instruction will occur in all three conditions. The science + vocabulary condition will also include robust instruction on science-related vocabulary words whereas the science + grammar condition will also include focused stimulation of complex grammatical constructions relevant to scientific inquiry. Proximal probes administered weekly during the intervention and withdrawal phases will reveal the participants' mastery and maintenance of taught science concepts. Distal probes administered before and after the intervention phase will reveal the participants' generalization to untaught science concepts and practices. Comparisons of proximal and distal outcomes between conditions will reveal whether supports for vocabulary and grammar improve science learning.


Memory and Word Learning 2012-2017 [back to list]

McGregor PI

funding provided by the National Institutes of Health​

The objective of this project was to examine the memory processes that support word learning in people with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD).We focused recruitment efforts on post-secondary students. Our motivations were three-fold: Vocabulary problems associated with DLD persist, and by some reports increase, from preschool to adolescence; Students with DLD are a growing segment of the college/university population in the U.S.; the stakes are high for these citizens who, having been accepted for post-secondary studies despite their disabilities, have a great opportunity to contribute to society but who, without adequate support, are at a high risk for failure to matriculate.

In a series of training studies, we examined three memory processes that support word learning and retention: encoding, consolidation, and retrieval. Encoding, the experience (exposure)-dependent process via which a new memory is formed, is followed by consolidation, a slower process via which the fragile new memory is stabilized, enhanced and integrated into a network of related memories. Unlike encoding, consolidation does not depend upon overt experience with the word and referent. Subsequent retrieval can further strengthen the memory trace and can set in motion the processes of re-encoding and re-consolidation. Our central hypothesis was that the word learning problems that characterize DLD are a consequence of deficits in experience-dependent memory processes. Encoding rather than consolidation is the bottle-neck. Therefore, our primary aim was to determine the integrity of experience-dependent and -independent memory processes of learners with DLD. Additionally, we aimed to identify experiences that promote optimal encoding among learners with DLD and to describe the complex interactions between retrieval, (re)encoding, and (re)consolidation that culminate in poorer or stronger retention among learners with DLD.

The following publications resulted from the project:

McGregor, K.K., Gordon, K., Eden, N., Arbisi-Kelm, T., Oleson, J. (in press). Encoding deficits impede word learning and memory in adults with developmental language disorders. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Disorders.

Hall, J., McGregor, K.K., Oleson, J. (2017). Weaknesses in lexical-semantic knowledge among college students with specific learning disabilities: Evidence from a semantic fluency task. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 60, 640-653.

Becker, T.C., & McGregor, K.K. (2016). Learning from lectures is a challenge for college students with developmental language impairment. Journal of Communication Disorders, 64, 32-44.

McGregor, K.K., Langenfeld, N., Van Horne, S., Oleson, J., Anson, M., & Jacobson, W. (2016). The university experiences of students with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 31, 90-102.

McGregor, K.K., Arbisi-Kelm, T., & Eden, N. (2016). The encoding of word forms into memory may be challenging for college students with developmental language impairment. International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, DOI:10.3109/17549507.2016.1159337​

Sheng, L., Byrd, C.T., McGregor, K.K., Zimmerman, H., & Bludau, K. (2015). List memory in young adults with language learning disability. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 58, 336-344.

McGregor, K.K. (2014). What a difference a day makes: Change in memory for newly learned word forms over 24 hours, Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 57, 1842-1850.

McGregor, K.K., Licandro, U., Arenas, R., Eden, N., Stiles, D., Bean, A., & Walker, E. (2013). Why words are hard for adults with developmental language impairments. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research.


Learning Strategies of Post-Secondary Students with Language Learning Disabilities 2014-2019 [back to list]

Perelmutter, PI

Bogi Takács, PhD Candidate

Most studies of language learning disabilities focus on children or adolescents, not adults. Yet, at the same time we know that the largest group of incoming college students with disabilities are students with learning disabilities. While learning disabilities are heterogeneous, language is often affected. It is thus a pressing issue to find out more about college students with language learning disabilities, and locate ways these students could be supported better in achieving their educational aims.

As postsecondary students with language learning disabilities were admitted to college, they presumably have efficient learning strategies. Do these differ from the strategies of their typically developing peers? How do students compensate for their disability? Do they use environmental, social resources to cope? Do they structure their learning differently?

In the first phase of this project, we conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of literature on technology supports for adolescents and adults with learning disabilities. Currently, we area using a mixed-methods (qualitative and quantitative) approach to explore these and similar questions. Our goal is to hear from students with language learning disabilities in their own words, so that we will be able to focus our later, more experimental efforts on what they find important and useful in their daily lives. Unlike schoolchildren, who often struggle with verbalizing their lived experience, adult students can provide a large amount of information.

We are gathering data using a combination of videotaped interviews, surveys and behavioral tasks. We are currently recruiting both students with language learning disabilities, and typically developing students as controls.

The first publication from this on-going project is:

Perelmutter, B., McGregor, K.K., & Gordon, K.R. (2017). Assistive technology interventions for adolescents and adults with learning disabilities: An evidence-based systematic review and meta-analysis. Computers & Education, 114, 139-163.


​Early Word Learning 2011 [back to list]​​

Munro and Baker, PIs

Funding provided by the University of Sydney

We are fortunate to have an ongoing collaboration with Drs. Natalie Munro and Elise Baker in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Sydney. We have been particularly active in exploring word learning in typical toddlers and those who are late to talk. Our long-term goal is to inform early identification and interventions for children at risk for developmental language disorders, broadly defined.

The following publications have resulted from the project:

Chami, S., Munro, N., Docking, K., McGregor, K., Arciuli, J., Baker, E. & Heard, R. (2017). Changes in semantic fluency across childhood: normative data from Australian-English speakers. International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, DOI: 10.1080/17549507.2016.1276214.

Hodges, R., Baker, E., Munro, N., & McGregor, K. (2016). Responses made by late talkers and typically developing toddlers during verbal assessments. International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, DOI 10.1080/17549507.2016.1221452.

Hodges, R., Munro, N., Baker, E., McGregor, K., & Heard, R. (2016). The monosyllable imitation test for toddlers: Influence of stimulus characteristics on imitation, compliance and diagnostic accuracy. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, DOI: 10.1111/1460-6984.12249

Hodges, R., Munro, N., Baker, E. & McGregor, K.K. (2015). The role of elicited verbal imitation in toddlers' word learning. Journal of Child Language, 1-15.​