Communication Disorders Ph.D. Dissertations


The Relationship Between Phonological Working Memory, Phonological Sensitivity, and Incidental Word Learning

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Communication Disorders/Speech-Language Pathology

First Advisor

Lynne Hewitt (Advisor)


Rapid learning of novel vocabulary is crucial to overall success in language acquisition. While the exact mechanisms underlying the acquisition of the lexicon remain under investigation, it is well known that children are able to form rapid initial associations between novel words and their referents during everyday experiences. This ability is referred to as incidental word learning, a process by which a learner makes a sparse initial representation of a word in lexical memory, following only a brief exposure. The cognitive abilities needed to succeed at this task were investigated, specifically by examining the role of working memory and phonological sensitivity in novel word learning by 4-year-olds who were typically developing. It evaluated two competing models, the phonological loop model proposed by Baddeley and colleagues (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974), and the lexical restructuring model of Metsala (Metsala & Walley, 1998; Metsala, 1999). Forty 4 year olds were administered a test of nonword repetition (to investigate phonological working memory), rhyming and phoneme alliteration tasks (to investigate phonological sensitivity), and an incidental word learning task, via a computer-based presentation of a cartoon story. A multiple regression analysis revealed that nonword repetition scores did not contribute significantly to incidental word learning. Phonological sensitivity scores were significant predictors of incidental word learning. These findings provide support for a model of lexical acquisition in which phonological knowledge plays an important role.