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J Commun Disord. 2011 Nov-Dec;44(6):640-54. doi: 10.1016/j.jcomdis.2011.07.001. Epub 2011 Aug 5.

The effect of time on word learning: an examination of decay of the memory trace and vocal rehearsal in children with and without specific language impairment.

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University of Arizona, AZ 85712, USA.



The purpose of this study was to measure the effect of time to response in a fast-mapping word learning task for children with specific language impairment (SLI) and children with typically developing language skills (TD). Manipulating time to response allows us to examine decay of the memory trace, the use of vocal rehearsal, and their effects on word learning.


Participants included 40 school-age children: half with SLI and half with TD. The children were asked to expressively and receptively fast-map 24 novel labels for 24 novel animated dinosaurs. They were asked to demonstrate learning either immediately after presentation of the novel word or after a 10-second delay. Data were collected on the use of vocal rehearsal and for recognition and production accuracy.


Although the SLI group was less accurate overall, there was no evidence of decay of the memory trace. Both groups used vocal rehearsal at comparable rates, which did not vary when learning was tested immediately or after a delay. Use of vocal rehearsal resulted in better accuracy on the recognition task, but only for the TD group.


A delay in time to response without interference was not an undue burden for either group. Despite the fact that children with SLI used a vocal rehearsal strategy as often as unimpaired peers, they did not benefit from the strategy in the same way as their peers. Possible explanations for these findings and clinical implications will be discussed.


Readers will learn about how time to response affects word learning in children with specific language impairment and unimpaired peers. They will see how this issue fits into a framework of phonological working memory. They will also become acquainted with the effect of vocal rehearsal on word learning.

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