What if we could discover how children learn words so language therapies could be developed and targeted precisely?

What if we could discover how children learn words so language therapies could be developed and targeted precisely?

Holly Storkel wants to know how children learn words, because believe it or not, science doesn’t really know. So she reads kids stories about things like a yame.

That’s yame – a yellow candy machine with one shoot. It doesn’t exist and that’s the point. How will a child remember “yame”? Does it help that is an unusual sound sequence or not? Would a child remember yame because it has many “word neighbors,” like game, fame, and flame? Once a child hears a description of the yame and even sees a picture of it – how does that help affix it in memory?

Storkel, associate professor of speech-language-hearing, was awarded a highly competitive five-year $1.75 million grant to develop one of the first comprehensive models of how children learn words that will ultimately be used to improve the diagnosis and treatment of language deficits.

The five-year National Institutes of Health grant will allow Storkel to do the kind of basic research that is often lacking in the current practice of speech therapy and pathology.

“A lot of what we believe about how to teach kids vocabulary hasn’t been systematic or tied to proof of how they actually learn words,” she said.

Many children with language impairments have difficulty learning new words, yet the cause is poorly understood, she explains.

Storkel is conducting a series of studies of children with and without impairments as well as with adults to build a framework for practitioners based on what she discovers about how individual sounds, word sounds and word meanings contribute to verbally learning language.

Storkel describes the relationship of words to each other as sound, word and meaning neighbors. She will be exploring these neighborhoods to determine if and how words are learned more easily if words have many or few neighbors.

“Children learn which sound combinations are more or less common in their language by the time they are about nine months of age,” Storkel said. “We want to know if more common or rarer sound sequences helps you learn new words.”

Word meaning learning has been less studied but more hotly debated, according to Storkel. Do kids learn the meaning of words like dog and cat more easily because they are both furry and have four legs, or do they learn words like chair, sofa and stool because you can sit on all of them?

The project could fundamentally change the way children are assessed and treated for language impairments.

“If an assessment were based on knowledge of what factors influence word learning, you would know what types of words a child had trouble learning. You would have a clear direction from assessment to treatment.”