Neuroscientist Gets Grant to Study Differences in Children’s Vocabulary

Dr. Mandy Maguire

Dr. Mandy Maguire

A UT Dallas researcher has been awarded a $515,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to utilize a relatively new technique that uses time frequency analysis of electroencephalogram (EEG) signals to help determine why children who live in poverty have smaller vocabularies.

Dr. Mandy Maguire, associate professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, said the technique will look at changes in EEG signals to study brain processes in school-age children as they learn new words. Behavioral observation also is a key part of the study. 

“We know a lot about why children from lower-income homes have small vocabularies when they're really young. There's a lot of research that indicates it’s based on family interactions and family stress,” Maguire said. “As the kids get older, however, the vocabulary difference between high- and low-income kids actually becomes larger, but we don't know why.” 

Maguire said the three-year study will look at what happens when children between the ages of 8 and 15 hear an unfamiliar word in a sentence in which they know all the other words. She said people typically use a number of processes to determine the meaning of a word: 

  • Working memory to hold all the information in mind.
  • Ability to pay attention to the things that are most important.
  • Semantic memory to pull from the brain all of the meanings of each of those individual words.
  • Semantic integration to take all of that information and pull it together to come up with the meaning of the word. 

“We can look at each of those processes individually by using EEG,” Maguire said. “That will give us an idea of what the brain is doing and how these different processes are interacting in successful word learning. Then, with children who are struggling with vocabulary, we can better determine which processes might be lagging or not working.” 

The behavioral portion of the study will look at whether children actually learn new words. The 300 study participants will be introduced to a new word in three sentences. Then the children will be asked if they understand the meaning of the new word. 

Maguire said that word learning among 8- to 15-year-olds is not often studied. But with the vocabulary problems experienced by so many children of low socioeconomic status in that age group, it is important to look at how they learn, she said. 

“Reduced vocabulary is a big problem in the U.S., in Texas and in Dallas,” Maguire said. “When a child is in fourth or fifth grade, general word-learning ability begins affecting other classes. It is very important to research children at this age because vocabulary has such an effect on their overall academic success.” 

She said that with this study they are trying to examine as many measures as possible to home in on where the differences are and to identify what specifically leads to the learning differences observed between children of different socioeconomic levels. 

“The outcomes of this research will help to identify directions for intervention to increase the likelihood of academic success within this at-risk population,” Maguire said. 

The research will be conducted at the Callier Center for Communication Disorders in Dallas. Dr. Alyson Abel-Mills, a recent UT Dallas Callier Center Postdoctoral Fellow who is now an assistant professor at San Diego State University, also is a primary investigator on the study.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

Tagged: BBS Callier research