University of Iowa researchers are partnering with schools in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City to study how children learn words and form a vocabulary.
Bob McMurray, a U-I professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, says the effort is called the Growing Words Project, and it uses sophisticated infrared cameras that carefully track a child’s eye movements.
“We know that if you show a child a word or if you say a word to them, it takes about a half-second or more for them to figure out what you mean,” McMurray says. “What are they doing in that half-second? Growing Words is investigating that using eye-tracking where we can trace out, every four milliseconds, what a child is thinking as they listen to or read words.”
Starting in January, the program will be testing about 300 elementary school children in Cedar Rapids and another hundred in Iowa City. The child will place his or her chin in a harness in front of a computer screen rigged with cameras. “They might hear a word like ‘wizard’ or maybe they read it, and on the screen, they see several pictures, things like a wizard, a window, a lizard, and maybe something that’s completely unrelated like table,” McMurray says. “All they have to do is click on the wizard, but they have to find it first and that means they have to start looking around. What we do is we ask, what are they looking at and when?”
Between 12 and 16-percent of Iowa children have some type of learning or reading disorder. “Part of their problem might be that they know the words, they know the letters, but they can’t use that information fast enough to understand a whole sentence or to read a whole sentence or to read a book,” McMurray says. “What we want to do is try to understand how those children — but also how their typically-developing peers — manage to do this so quickly and how they get better at it.”
The program will study about 400 children a year over the next four years using a $2.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. More volunteers are needed in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids at all reading levels in grades one through three.
Contact McMurray through the website: https://growingwords.lab.uiowa.edu/