Dr. Yael Arbel will use National Institutes of Health funding to determine which feedback-based learning approaches work best.

Determining how children with developmental language disorder learn has been understudied for years.  

The condition, which affects about 8% of students in the country, is one of the most common developmental disorders that affect learning. But because there has been little research on the subject, there has yet to be a consensus on which teaching approaches used by clinicians and teachers work best with children who have DLD.   

Identifying strategies that can improve learning in children with DLD is the focus of a new $2.3 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health awarded to MGH Institute of Health Professions researcher Dr. Yael Arbel. 

Arbel and her team will focus on feedback-based learning approaches that clinicians and teachers currently use to correct and shape children’s erroneous usage of words and phrases. One of the questions Arbel and her team are asking is whether a child should be made aware of grammatical errors and asked to correct them, or should the clinician and teacher simply expose the child to the correct word or phrase after an error, a method called corrective recast. 

“We're asking novel questions that are important for decision-making in the clinic,” said Arbel, who is co-director of the MGH Institute’s Cognitive Neuroscience Group where she and her colleagues use behavioral and neuroscience methods to examine the relationship between learning, language ability, and cognitive factors. “We want to better understand how children with DLD process information under different conditions and determine the optimal way for these children to learn.” 

The grant is a follow-up to an earlier NIH award Arbel received, whose results indicated that children with DLD have difficulty learning from feedback. Because feedback-based learning is an important ingredient of language intervention provided to children with DLD, Arbel and her team seek to identify the conditions under which it can be improved in children with DLD and then test those approaches in a clinical setting. A follow-up clinical trial would be undertaken to pinpoint the best ways for students with DLD to learn.  

In addition to the current award, Arbel is working on another five-year grant from the NIH in which she is investigating impaired learning mechanisms in children with DLD. 

To achieve their goals with the new grant, Arbel and her research team will evaluate learning in 140 children with DLD who are between the ages of 8 and 12. In the CNG’s lab on the IHP campus, the children will complete several learning tasks on computers while they wear an electroencephalogram (EEG) net that records electrical activity in their brain. Seeing how well they learn under different feedback conditions and how their brains respond to that feedback, Arbel said, should help determine which techniques are more effective. 

Arbel and her team are trying to understand why children who have DLD struggle to develop language and to identify teaching approaches that can improve their language learning. Children with DLD typically are late to say their first words and to combine words into sentences. They have difficulty understanding and producing complex sentences. When they enter school, they often experience difficulties with reading and reading comprehension, causing a ripple effect that can hinder them throughout their years in school and beyond.  

“What we want to know is how to best support their learning,” said Arbel, a professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, “by understanding what aspects of their cognitive system hinder their learning and what aspects of it support learning. It's about understanding the mechanism of learning so that we can improve the interventions that we provide them with.”