Researchers open new lab, partner with area schools on word-learning project
Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Bob McMurray wants to understand how children learn words.

It’s much more complicated than you might think, McMurray, a professor in the University of Iowa’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, says.

Take the word “sandal,” for example. In just one-fifth of a second, a child who hears the word already has identified it, ruling out other words with a similar beginning or end, such as “sandwich” or “candle.”

Co-investigators on the project are: 

J. Bruce Tomblin, speech language pathologist in the UI Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders

Isaac Petersen, clinical psychologist in the UI Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences

Eliot Hazeltine, professor in the UI Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences

Jacob Oleson, professor of biostatistics in the UI College of Public Health

Deborah Reed, director of the Iowa Center for Reading Research

“In a very brief time, your brain has figured out what the word means,” McMurray says. “The question we seek to answer is what are children thinking during those first 200 milliseconds?”

With $2.1 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health, McMurray is partnering with schools in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City to enroll hundreds of elementary-age children in his research, which uses novel eye-tracking technology to learn how children identify and form vocabulary. The effort, called the Growing Words Project, is important because it could help researchers better understand how children with language disorders or dyslexia identify spoken and written words. A better understanding could lead to an ability to help struggling children earlier and give them the word-learning assistance they need.

“We think our research gives us a pretty unique insight into not only how well a child is doing, but also why they may be doing poorly or what’s changing with language development,” McMurray says. “The goal is to try to figure out all the whys with how children recognize and learn words, something we just don’t know currently.”

With support from the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, McMurray has opened a research lab near downtown Cedar Rapids. Beginning this spring, McMurray and his team will screen children in the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City school districts for their word-recognition abilities. From those evaluations, the group will select children with a range of word-identification skills for further study. Those tests, expected to begin this fall, will form the heart of the research. Two full-time staff, along with undergraduate students from the UI and Coe College in Cedar Rapids, are expected to assist with the work.

The work builds upon the UI’s prominence in speech and hearing research. Graduate programs in speech pathology and audiology are among the top-ranked in the nation, according to U.S. News and World Report.

McMurray says he opened the Cedar Rapids lab to make it more convenient for school children and their parents to participate. If needed, staff will be available to drive children and parents to and from the lab, he says.

“We want to make this as easy as possible for children and especially their parents, whom we know are busy and may not have much free time,” he says.

The Cedar Rapids Community School District is excited to partner with the UI.

“This research will give many a greater understanding of how a child learns and recognizes words,” says Val Dolezal, the district’s executive director of preschool through fifth grade. “The more we learn about how the brain processes information and uses that in learning to read is only going to help teachers and parents understand how best to support that process.” 

McMurray also is working with the Iowa City Community School District and that research will take place on the UI campus.

McMurray learned about eye-tracking technology as a graduate student at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York, studying with Michael Tanenhaus, a UI alumnus and researcher. He has been using the technology at the UI for the past decade.

It works like this: A child sits in front of a computer screen in a soundproof booth and hears a word. At least two other options to the word they hear appear on the computer screen. The researchers determine how long the child takes to identify and click on an icon signifying the correct word, and track the child’s eyes as they consider the other options.

Watching a child's eyes flit from one icon to another before settling on the correct word—all within a fraction of a second—tells the researchers a lot about how the child arrived at the answer.

“They’re already sorting through an immense library of words as soon as they hear the beginning of the sound,” McMurray says. “We think it is a kind of competitive process, when one word has to win and shut down the others. We find that young children don’t resolve that competition as quickly as adults.”

Children with language disorders, while nearly as adept at identifying spoken words as their peers, appear to retain the competing words for a longer period of time. That becomes an issue when the vocabulary becomes more complex.

“All this clutter is hanging out and they have more difficulty weeding out competing words,” McMurray says.

The research with Cedar Rapids and Iowa City elementary students will build upon preliminary results showing that children are building the brain power through adolescence to identify words more quickly and how that could be related to hearing, speech, and reading skills. The larger sample size in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City will allow the researchers to affirm those previous findings.

Abigail Simon, a junior from Ann Arbor, Michigan, used the eye-tracking technology for about a year while studying how children with cochlear implants hear and identify words, and compared those results to tests involving children with no hearing issues. Simon, a speech and hearing sciences major, says her work in McMurray’s lab has been rewarding and has helped shape her career path.

“We have so much participant and patient exposure in this lab. In the first week, I was trained how to interact with and work with participants,” says Simon, who is writing her honors thesis based on her research in McMurray’s lab. “It’s really nice because you get a professional sense of what you’d be doing in the real world. All those experiences have reaffirmed my interest in audiology. I want to go to graduate school, and I’m definitely interested in working in a more clinical or hospital setting.”

Christina Blomquist learned how to use the eye-tracking technology as an undergraduate student working in McMurray’s lab. She has continued pursuing that research interest after graduating from the UI and enrolling in a combined program for a master’s in speech language pathology and a doctorate in hearing and speech science at the University of Maryland.

“When people think of language development, they typically think of five years of age and younger, that’s the critical time for language,” says Blomquist, who graduated from the UI in 2017 with degrees in psychology and speech and hearing science. “But what we’ve found is that there is development happening even into the adolescent years, like 16 years old—there’s even an increase in efficiency in how you access words that late in childhood.”

Blomquist says the research is important to her because it could lead to more support for children in learning environments, such as the classroom.

“How efficiently children can process words is related to their language ability with sounds, so it’s helpful to understand what is causing differences among children,” she says.

The Cedar Rapids lab is helping unravel those differences. It also could lead to more research partnerships between the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City communities and the UI.

“My hope is this project is a model for other departments seeking a remote data-collection site to build upon, which would be exciting for the community and the university,” McMurray says.