Retrieval Practice and Word Learning in Children With Developmental Language Disorder

The role of retrieval practice on the word learning and retention

Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) is a language disorder that affects the development of language skills in children. In was previously known as Specific Language Impairment. These children often struggle with vocabulary acquisition and require targeted intervention to improve their language skills. This article will focus on the role of retrieval practice in word learning for children with DLD, drawing from relevant research and discussing potential educational applications.

The Contribution of Retrieval Practice to Children’s Word Learning

Research on retrieval practice has demonstrated its effectiveness in various learning contexts. However, studies specifically focusing on novel word learning in children with SLI have been limited (Chen & Liu, 2014; McGregor et al., 2017). These studies reported word learning advantages for retrieval practice in children with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD).

McGregor et al. (2017) conducted a study where participants learned novel words through different conditions: no retrieval during learning, retrieval after each study trial, and retrieval with the experimenter providing the first syllable of the word. The study found that individuals with DLD showed recall on par with typically developing (TD) peers in the retrieval conditions, but poorer recall in the no-retrieval condition.

Retrieval Practice and DLD
Phonics and Reading Resources

Potential Clinical and Educational Applications

Researchers found that children with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) struggle with verbal learning, particularly in the early stages of learning. However, their difficulties are specific to verbal learning and do not affect nonverbal learning. Based on these findings, researchers concluded that long-term memory remains intact in children with DLD.

The challenges experienced by these children in the early stages of learning were attributed to limitations in procedural memory. Procedural memory refers to the system that helps us learn motor sequences necessary for the phonological form of words. It appears that this procedural memory system may be impaired in children with DLD.

Additionally, the procedural memory system is involved in working memory and word retrieval. As a result, the difficulties faced by children with DLD extend beyond learning new words. They also struggle with learning new configurations or combinations of familiar words. This suggests that the impairment in procedural memory impacts various aspects of language learning, including word formation and recall.

Before confidently applying retrieval practice in schools, more research is needed. Factors such as retrieval schedules, optimal number of words per session, and inclusion of different word types (e.g., verbs) should be considered. Although the children in previous studies were representative of the preschool-age DLD population, it’s crucial to ensure that retrieval practice is beneficial for children with varying degrees of language impairment.

The evidence so far is encouraging, with research suggesting that retrieval practice may help children with DLD narrow the word recall gap compared to their peers. Book reading sessions could include opportunities for children to retrieve new words. Spacing of retrieval could be incorporated by reintroducing word referents throughout the book.

How can Teachers Make Retrieval Practice More Engaging for Children with Developmental Language Disorder?

Here are some suggested ways to make Retrieval Practice more engaging for children with DLD and other learning difficulties:

  • Use games and activities. Turn Retrieval Practice into an enjoyable game, such as by having children race to recall new words or concepts. Games keep children motivated and make learning fun.
  • Use visuals. Show pictures, photos, diagrams or gestures when introducing new words or concepts. Then remove the visual supports and have children recall the words or information. Visuals enhance learning and give children more hooks for retrieving the information.
  • Play music. Play upbeat lyric free music while children engage in Retrieval Practice. Music is stimulating and can positively impact mood and motivation.
  • Keep it social. Have children work together in pairs or small groups for Retrieval Practice. A social, collaborative aspect will motivate many children.
  • Provide incentives and rewards. Offer praise, stickers or other small rewards to children for their efforts and accomplishments with Retrieval Practice. Incentives spur motivation and engagement.
  • Connect to interests. When possible, choose new words, topics and materials for Retrieval Practice activities that tap into children’s hobbies, interests or favorite characters. Making these personal connections will boost motivation and engagement.
  • Start small and build up. Begin with just 2-5 minutes of Retrieval Practice at a time, especially when first introducing the activities. Keeping durations brief, especially initially, will prevent children from becoming disengaged before they build up endurance over multiple sessions. Starting small and gradually progressing is a key to success.
Retrieval Practice and Word Learning in Children With Developmental Language Disorder


Retrieval practice has shown promising results in improving word learning for children with developmental language disorder. Further research is needed to refine the application of this technique in clinical and educational settings. Integrating self-testing with feedback into study sessions is helpful for learners with DLD (McGregor et al. 2017). By incorporating retrieval practice into language interventions, teachers can help children with DLD improve their vocabulary acquisition and overall language skills.


Chen, Y. , & Liu, H.-M. (2014). Novel-word learning deficits in Mandarin-speaking preschool children with specific language impairments. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 35, 10–20. Accessed Online June 2023 Free

Leonard, L. B., & Deevy, P. (2020). Retrieval Practice and Word Learning in Children With Specific Language Impairment and Their Typically Developing Peers. Journal of speech, language, and hearing research : JSLHR63(10), 3252–3262. Accessed Online June 2023 Free

McGregor, K. K., Gordon, K., Eden, N., Arbisi-Kelm, T., & Oleson, J. (2017). Encoding Deficits Impede Word Learning and Memory in Adults With Developmental Language Disorders. Journal of speech, language, and hearing research : JSLHR60(10), 2891–2905. Accessed Online June 2023 Free

2 thoughts on “Retrieval Practice and Word Learning in Children With Developmental Language Disorder”

  1. Pingback: Understanding Dyslexia - How Teachers Can Help Support Reading

  2. Pingback: Using Videos In The Classroom to Boost Pupil Engagement. - Special Education and Inclusive Learning

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: