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May 3, 2006
Contact: Karen Salisbury Henry, Schiefelbusch Life Span Institute, (785) 864-0756.

Professorís $1.75M grant aims to improve treatment of vocabulary deficits in kids

Storkel

Holly Storkel

LAWRENCE — Holly Storkel, assistant professor of speech-language-hearing at the University of Kansas, has won 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 National Institutes of Health grant will allow Storkel to do the kind of basic research that is needed to advance clinical practices in speech-language pathology.

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

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

“Children who enter elementary school with vocabulary deficits have difficulty closing the gap with their peers, so early effective word-learning instruction is critical in preventing reading and academic failure.”

Storkel will conduct a series of studies of children with and without impairments and adults to build a framework for practitioners based on what she discovers about how individual sounds, words and word meanings contribute to learning spoken language.

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

“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 help you learn new words.”

Storkel said that an earlier adult study showed that if a word has a unique sound pattern, it triggers word learning, immediately leading to more rapid learning. However, with whole words and meaning, it is better to have many neighbors because the neighbors help reinforce what has been learned.

In addition, Storkel is interested in whether all neighbors are equally influential on learning. For example, in word meaning it is hotly debated whether physical or functional similarity is more important, according to Storkel. Do kids learn the meaning of words like dog and cat more easily because they are both are furry animals with 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 vocabulary impairments.

“Current assessments tell you that a child doesn’t know enough words but not why. If an assessment were based on knowledge of what factors influence word learning, you would have a better idea of why the child had trouble learning words, giving you a clear direction for treatment.”

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