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In this article, we review the role of retrieval practice on the word learning and retention of children with specific language impairment (SLI).


Following a brief review of earlier findings on word learning in children with SLI and the assumptions behind retrieval practice, four experiments are described that compared novel words learned in a repeated spaced retrieval condition and those learned in either a repeated study condition or a repeated immediate retrieval condition. Preschool-age children with SLI and their same-age peers with typical language development were the participants in all experiments. The effects of repeated spaced retrieval were assessed through measures of recall of word form and meaning and, receptively, through both picture-pointing and electrophysiological measures.


Repeated spaced retrieval resulted in greater recall of word form and meaning across the experiments. This advantage was seen not only for word–picture pairs used during the learning period but also when generalization of the word to new pictures was required. Receptive testing through picture pointing showed similar results, though in some experiments, ceiling effects rendered this measure less sensitive to differences. An alternative receptive measure—the N400 elicited during picture–word mismatches—showed evidence at the neural level favoring repeated spaced retrieval. The advantages of repeated spaced retrieval were seen in both children with SLI and their typically developing age mates.


Future efforts are warranted to refine and extend the experiments reviewed here. If these efforts prove successful, procedures that incorporate repeated spaced retrieval into more naturalistic clinical and educational activities might be an appropriate next step.


This is the publisher PDF of Leonard, L., & Deevy, P. (2020). Retrieval practice and word learning in children with specific language impairment and their typically developing peers. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 63, 3252-3262. Copyright held by the authors, it is published CC-BY, and can be found at DOI: 10.1044/2020_JSLHR-20-00006.

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