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What Learning Looks Like: Researcher Teaches Fake Words To Watch Learning Happen

Reported by Nicholas Mcvicker

We're exploring learning at the cellular level in a new education series called "What Learning Looks Like." The goal is to help us understand how learning happens — or should happen — in our everyday lives.

Transcript

What Learning Looks Like: Researcher Teaches Fake Words To Watch Learning Happen

GUEST:

Alyson Abel, assistant professor, San Diego State University

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Alyson Abel points to a line graph on her computer that shows brain responses collected from children as they heard sentences that had no meaning, Aug. 29, 2016.

KPBS is exploring learning at the cellular level in a new education series called "What Learning Looks Like." The goal is to help us understand how learning happens — or should happen — in our everyday lives.

Alyson Abel points to a tangle of red, green and blue lines on a graph. Each is a bit like a printout from a lie detector test.

The squiggly lines mean her research subject was stumped — repeatedly — by sentences like these: "I need a footstool for my gouse. She drinks milk from a gouse. You bring the drinks and I'll bring the gouse."

Abel is an assistant professor in San Diego State University's School of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences. She runs a lab where she studies brain responses to get a better picture of how we go from hearing a new word to understanding what it means.

For the past four years, she's done that by plotting kids’ neural activity as she teaches them made-up words like gouse.

Abel recently simulated the study for KPBS on her colleague's 13-year-old son, Duncan Hawe.

"So you're going to hear sets of three sentences," Abel told Hawe. "Each sentence ends with a nonsense word, with a made-up word. Some nonsense words will represent a real word and some will not."

Duncan shook his head, which was covered with a tight electroencephalogram, or EEG, cap that sends electrical brain activity to Abel's computer. It looks like something out of a science fiction movie.

"Ready? The two boys fought over the shap," Abel read aloud. "They played catch with the shap. In gym class I like to throw the shap.

"Does shap have a real word meaning?"

Duncan got the answer right. Shap is a stand-in for "ball."

Photo caption: Alyson Abel reads sentences containing made-up words to Duncan Hawe as part o...

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Alyson Abel reads sentences containing made-up words to Duncan Hawe as part of a research study on language processing, Aug. 29, 2016.

Audio

Put yourself to the test. Listen to sentences from Alyson Abel's study to see if you can make meaning of the nonsense words. Some are stand-ins for real nouns, others are not. (All of Duncan's answers are correct.)

Transcript

Abel has crafted more than 700 of these sentence sets so she can chart the progression in brain activity as children hear them. In this way, she can actually see learning happening.

It starts with a big dip on the line graph during the first sentence, "The boys fought over the shap." That dip means Duncan is confused — his neurons aren't sure what he’s just encountered. The second and third sentences add context. "They played catch with the shap. I like to throw the shap." The dip gets shallower and shallower until it becomes a peak on the line graph.

"So the third time they hear the nonsense word, it looks like their brain is processing it like it's a real word," Abel said. "The brain is responding to it the exact same way that the brain responds to a known word."

That response is called N400 and is well-known among cognitive scientists. It looks the same for every person regardless of age or IQ. What changes, depending on the person or setting, is how long it takes for the brain to have the response.

Abel likens what's going on in the brain during her exercise to a team of workers.

"So the first time there's a lot of work. The neurons are working really hard to figure out what this word is and how it's going to fit it into the sentence," Abel said. "And then the second time that they hear the nonsense word, the brain is working less hard because now it's heard the word and they've started to attach meaning to it. And then, in this case, the third time that they hear the word there is less effort involved because they've already been able to attach meaning to this word."

Another way to think about it is with a baseball analogy. The unknown word is a ball headed for the left center field gap. The neurons are players scrambling to field a triple. As the ball drops and the runner rounds first, the players know more about how the play will unfold. The team's efforts become streamlined and targeted.

Abel is hoping that by studying this process, she can help teachers and speech language pathologists develop teaching strategies to close the vocabulary gap. Researchers have estimated low-income children hear and learn some 30 million fewer words than more privileged kids by age three.

Abel is focusing on students in grades three and higher, because that's when the vocabulary gap widens.

"Most early vocabulary acquisition in school, teachers are giving out definition lists — word lists — to learn," Abel said. "Around third grade is when teachers flip-flop to teaching new vocabulary in this way where kids have to learn it through reading or listening only, and they can only use the surrounding language to help ascertain the meaning of the new word. So this relies heavily on their language abilities, it relies heavily on their reading in some cases, on their attention."

Abel and researchers at University of Texas at Dallas are currently looking at the differences in word learning among kids from low- and middle-income households. They have support from the National Science Foundation.

Abel, with support from a San Diego State grant, is also looking at word learning in children with language impairments but no cognitive or hearing impairments.

In both groups, the goal is to better understand what children need to go from a squiggly, confused line to a perfect N400 line more quickly.

"Is it that they need five sentences? Is it that they need three sentences with really strong support?" Abel said. "What's the best scenario for their learning to be successful?"

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