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Word Learning Laboratory

The Word Learning Lab aims to understand: how people learn new words, how knowledge of word meanings deepens over time, and how to facilitate rich vocabulary learning among children who are challenged by language learning impairments.

  • ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Overview

    Why study word learning?

    Imagine a world without words. Could you learn? Could you work? Could you fall in love? Words give wings to our thoughts and emotions. Whereas most of us — even very young children — learn and use words readily, some people find word learning and use to be slow and laborious. As a result, they have smaller vocabularies and associated problems with reading, learning, and socializing. We want to understand why these problems occur and what we can do to help.


    There is another, more nerdy motivation. There are hundreds of thousands of words in any given language and each of these words represents a complex association of information: meaning, sound, and grammatical form. The lexicon, then, is a large, complicated, and exciting problem space for the learning scientist to explore!

    If you would like to participate in our research, please c​ontact Meghan Foody at We would love to hear from you!

    What is DLD?

    Rare is the layperson who has heard of Developmental Language Disorder (DLD). This is not because DLD is rare or inconsequential. In the United States, DLD is 50 times more prevalent than hearing impairment and five times more prevalent than autism (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015). Children with DLD are considerably slower than other children to develop spoken vocabulary and grammar despite normal intelligence and ample opportunity. DLD is a life-long condition (Nippold & Schwarz, 2002) that impairs social (Botting & Conti‐Ramsden, 2008) and academic (Alloway, & Stein, 2014) functions.

    Learn more about DLD

    Current Projects

    The Children's Vocabulary Project (2017-2022)

    The objective of this project is to discover how the word learning of children with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) changes over developmental time.​​

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

    The sophisticated langua​ge 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.

    Memory and Word Learning 2012-2017

    The objective of this project was to examine the memory processes that support word learning in people with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD).

    Learning Strategies of Post-Secondary Students with Language Learning Disabilities 2014-2019

    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.

    Early Word Learning (2011 – ongoing)

    The long-term goal of our ongoing collaboration with Drs. Natalie Munro and Elise Baker in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Sydney is to inform early identification and interventions for children at risk for developmental language disorders, ​broadly defined.

  • Our Team

    Faculty & Staff Biographies

    Karla McGregor  is a Senior Scientist and the Director of the Word Learning Laboratory in the Center for Childhood Deafness, Language, and Learning at Boys Town National Research Hospital. She is Professor Emerita at the University of Iowa, an Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney, and a Fellow of the American Speech, Language, Hearing Association.  Dr. McGregor's full curriculum vitae can be viewed here.

    Favorite words: shenanigans, waft

    Tim Arbisi-Kelm is a Senior Research Associate in the Word Learning Laboratory. He earned his Ph.D. in Linguistics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and completed a postdoctoral training in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research interests are in phonological and lexical development, and the role of prosody in language disorders.

    Favorite word: so'sol ch'iich'

    Nichole Eden is a certified speech-language pathologist with a background in early language intervention. She has been employed as Laboratory Coordinator in the Word Learning Laboratory since 2006. Nichole thoroughly enjoys her work, and loves that it continually provides her with opportunities to interact with, and learn from, students, faculty, and research participants.

    Favorite word: mischievous​

    Jacob Oleson is an Associate Professor in Biostatistics, Director of Graduate Studies, and Director of the Center for Public Health Statistics for the College of Public Health at the University of Iowa.  He conducts both biostatistical methodologic research and collaborative clinical research for a variety of research ventures.  He has served as the lead biostatistician on numerous hearing, speech, and language related projects working closely with team members on study design, statistical methods, analysis, and results.  This experience includes longitudinal, spatial, spatio-temporal, mixed models, growth curves, Bayesian models, missing data, and functional data analysis. Visit Dr. Oleson’s website.

    Favorite word: merry

    Erin Smolak is a postdoctoral fellow with experience in research in early language acquisition. She obtained her B.A. in psychology from Ohio University and her Ph.D. in Language and Communicative Disorders from San Diego State University and the University of California San Diego. Her research interests are in the early developmental trajectories of linguistic skills including word learning and language processing in both typical development and children with language disorders.

    Favorite word: ephemeral

    Meaghan Foody is a certified speech-language pathologist with a background in listening and spoken language and early language intervention. She has been employed as a Research Assistant in the Word Learning Laboratory since August of 2018. Meaghan enjoys working in research because it allows her to access both her intellect and creativity. She loves working and developing relationships with the children and their families as well as the World Learning Lab team.

    Favorite word: amazing

  • Children's Vocabulary Project

    The Children's Vocabulary Project (2017-2022, 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 will test this hypothesis by tracking​ 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.

    Participation ​​Information

    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.​​

  • Useful Resources