Better word learning through repeated retrieval

With vocabulary, there’s a tendency to talk about “teaching” and “probing” as two separate things, with too much of the latter getting in the way of the former. But as it turns out, asking your students to recall words you’ve recently taught them can be an important part of teaching. Depending on where you got your SLP training, concepts like “spaced retrieval” may have been part of your curriculum in adult cognitive therapy, but we can apply those same ideas to working with our preschool-aged friends with developmental language disorder (DLD) as well! We know our young clients with DLD struggle to learn new words, and vocabulary deficits can snowball over time, with negative effects on literacy and language, so anything we can do to improve that process is definitely worth knowing about.

In the first of a pair of studies from Leonard, Haebig, and colleagues, the authors taught novel (meaning, invented) words to a group of preschoolers (about age 5) with and without DLD. Half the words were taught with a procedure called repeated retrieval with contextual reinstatement (RRCR), that worked like this:

  1. Learn a new target word (see a picture paired with 3 exposures to the word and a simple definition)

  2. Prompt to recall (retrieve) that word, then hear the name/definition again (study the word)

  3. Learn 3 more words

  4. Retrieve the target word again, then study the word

  5. Learn 3 more words

  6. Retrieve the target word a third time, then study the word

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The “contextual reinstatement” part of RRCR comes from the fact that the attempts to retrieve the word are broken up by exposures to different words (in steps 3 and 5 above). The other half of the words were taught with the same procedure, but without the prompts to recall the word, so at steps 2, 4, and 6, the children just got the additional chances to study the target word.

For children with and without DLD, the repeated retrieval condition resulted in better word learning (about 2.5 more word forms recalled out of 8 in a labeling task, and 1 more definition) both 5 minutes and 1 week after teaching. Note that the same advantage didn’t hold if they were tested using a multiple-choice format (think the PPVT), which is an easier task than naming pictures. An even cooler part of the results? The children with DLD did just as well as the typically-developing kids, with the same number of exposures to the target words.

And how important is that “contextual reinstatement” piece, anyway? That’s the question the second of the two studies examined. They compared a slightly different RRCR protocol with immediate retrieval, where kids needed to recall taught words right after learning them, without other words being presented in between:

  • Immediate retrieval: Learn a word, retrieve and study that word three times, then repeat with two other words. 

  • RRCR: Learn a word, retrieve and study that word once, then repeat with two other words. Then retrieve/study the three words alternately, twice through (1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3). 

Similar to the previous results, the kids were much better at remembering words learned via RRCR. So it’s not just the retrieval aspect that’s important, but needing to retrieve information after thinking about something else in between. So while there’s still more to learn (How many words can you teach at a time via this method? What’s the best retrieval schedule to use?), this is a powerful concept that you can bring to your own intervention.

 

Leonard, L. B., Karpicke, J., Deevy, P., Weber, C., Christ, S., Haebig, E., … Krok, W. (2019). Retrieval-Based Word Learning in Young Typically Developing Children and Children With Developmental Language Disorder I: The Benefits of Repeated Retrieval. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. doi:10.1044/2018_JSLHR-L-18-0070

Haebig, E., Leonard, L. B., Deevy, P., Karpicke, J., Christ, S. L., Usler, E., … Weber, C. (2019). Retrieval-Based Word Learning in Young Typically Developing Children and Children With Development Language Disorder II: A Comparison of Retrieval Schedules. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. doi:10.1044/2018_JSLHR-L-18-0071