Background: Working memory is considered to influence a range of linguistic skills, i.e. vocabulary acquisition, sentence comprehension and reading. Several studies have pointed to limitations of working memory in children with specific language impairment. Few studies, however, have explored the role of working memory for language deficits in children with hearing impairment.
Aims: The first aim was to compare children with mild-to-moderate bilateral sensorineural hearing impairment, children with a preschool diagnosis of specific language impairment and children with normal language development, aged 9-12 years, for language and working memory. The special focus was on the role of working memory in learning new words for primary school age children.
Methods & procedures: The assessment of working memory included tests of phonological short-term memory and complex working memory. Novel word learning was assessed according to the methods of. In addition, a range of language tests was used to assess language comprehension, output phonology and reading.
Outcomes & results: Children with hearing impairment performed significantly better than children with a preschool diagnosis of specific language impairment on tasks assessing novel word learning, complex working memory, sentence comprehension and reading accuracy. No significant correlation was found between phonological short-term memory and novel word learning in any group. The best predictor of novel word learning in children with specific language impairment and in children with hearing impairment was complex working memory. Furthermore, there was a close relationship between complex working memory and language in children with a preschool diagnosis of specific language impairment but not in children with hearing impairment.
Conclusions: Complex working memory seems to play a significant role in vocabulary acquisition in primary school age children. The interpretation is that the results support theories suggesting a weakened influence of phonological short-term memory on novel word learning in school age children.