Word learning and exemplar variability in preschoolers with language disorder

Do you have young children with developmental language disorder (DLD) on your caseload? Eighteen 4- and 5-year olds with DLD in a recent study learned new words with this treatment—and, even better, retained their word learning after three weeks.

The preschoolers with DLD were assigned to one of two groups. Both groups were exposed to real objects that represented the target vocabulary words, one- or two-syllable nouns, such as “hinge” and “tassel.” The only difference between the groups was the variability of the objects that the preschoolers were exposed to. For example, the no-variability group was taught the target word “hinge” with three very similar hinges. Alternatively, the other group was exposed to hinges that varied in size, color, and/or texture.

Training consisted of just 18 presentations of each target word—six presentations of each of the eight target words in three sessions within a three-week period—during fun activities such as building a robot and a pirate treasure hunt. The six presentations included the following:

  • a sentence from the activity directions
  • a statement
  • an imperative command
  • a question
  • a natural fifth and sixth presentation, based on the context of the activity

While both groups showed word learning gains during testing, the group exposed to a variety of objects during training performed significantly better during retention tasks three weeks later.

Check out the “Learning Activity” section of the article for examples of the models that you can implement during therapy along with examples of objects to represent the words you are teaching. Also, do note that there were individual learning differences—some children learned more target words than others.


Aguilar, J. M., Plante, E., & Sandoval, M. (2017). Exemplar variability facilitates retention of word learning by children with specific language impairment. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. Advance online publication: doi:10.1044/2017_LSHSS-17-0031.