Indiana University

Skip to:

  1. Search
  2. Breadcrumb Navigation
  3. Content
  4. Browse by Topic
  5. Services & Resources
  6. Additional Resources
  7. Multimedia News

Last modified: Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Gershkoff-Stowe asks: As child's vocabulary grows, how do they find that right word?

National Science Foundation provides $467,071 to fund studies

Oct. 13, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- An Indiana University associate professor in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences has received $467,071 from the National Science Foundation to further her research into the word retrieval processes of children.

Gershkoff photo

Photo by Aaron Bernstein

Lisa Gershkoff-Stowe's research into understanding how language processing systems operate will be supported by $467,071 from the National Science Foundation.

Print-Quality Photo

Lisa Gershkoff-Stowe's research into how a child's emerging lexicon is organized, how it operates and then how it changes as vocabulary grows will move forward with a series of five planned studies the NSF has agreed to fund over the next three years. The studies will involve examining the word retrieval skills of children of different ages using a battery of different tests.

"As children develop increasingly larger and more complex language systems, a major challenge is to locate relevant information quickly and easily," she said. "I want to investigate how the language processing system develops in response to this challenge."

Gershkoff-Stowe has previously discovered that errors involving the repetition of a just previously said word occur frequently for the young word learner, and that these errors often involve familiar words for familiar objects. This, for her, suggests that the processes associated with retrieving words from a rapidly expanding lexicon can be delicate and fragile.

"A child's emerging lexicon is continuously subject to change and reorganization as new words are added and lexical neighborhoods, or groups of related words, are formed," she said. "And more words in the lexicon increase the opportunity for competition when a child works at retrieval."

One theory Gershkoff-Stowe will explore is whether or not the need to retrieve a growing number of words quickly and accurately serves as the impetus for system-wide changes in how words are processed early in the course of word acquisition and production. There may well be a point in a child's development when lexical processing is no longer guided by the properties of individual words alone, but instead by an ensemble of words belonging to the same system.

Stroop Test

About 340 children ages 2 through 8 will participate in a series of upcoming studies by Speech and Hearing Sciences associate professor Lisa Gershkoff-Stowe that were recently funded by the National Science Foundation. Above, Dana Courier, left, a former IU Speech and Hearing Sciences honors student, conducts a test with a young subject in Gershkoff-Stowe's lab.

Adult speakers can select two to three words per second from a lexicon containing tens of thousands of entries in a language processing system. This mature system operates in a highly automatic and rapid fashion, requiring little attention or effort, she explained. Called automaticity, the process is broadly recognized as being achieved through extended practice of a skill, but it is still widely disputed as to what actually changes as a result of that extended practice.

Early in their development, children invest considerable effort in cognitive resources that are key components in the simple act of naming: processing the visual or perceptual attributes of objects, matching that information to memory, linking semantic representations of the objects to their phonological forms, and formulating and executing words for production. Gershkoff and others wonder whether or not one of the benefits of automaticity would be to free up these cognitive resources for other tasks.

Gershkoff-Stowe's principal concern is with the mechanisms associated with word retrieval and the nature of the developmental changes that underlie improvements in naming. Approximately 340 children between the ages of 2 and 8 will be recruited to participate in the studies.

"My research assumes a dynamic systems approach to language development that includes the idea that gradual and continuous increases in vocabulary growth can lead to relatively sudden change -- like a vocabulary spurt, for example," she said. "My proposed studies will provide the foundation for a developmental account of the language processing system and should help to inform current models of adult lexical access."

Gershkoff-Stowe holds a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from IU and received a post-doctoral fellowship from the National Institutes of Health to conduct research at the University of Chicago from 1996-98. In addition to her position as an associate professor of speech and hearing sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences, Gershkoff-Stowe also serves as an adjunct associate professor of psychology and as a core faculty member in the Department of Cognitive Sciences.

To speak with Gershkoff-Stowe about her research, please contact Steve Chaplin, University Communications, at 812-856-1896 or