Why word learning is not fast

Natalie Munro, Elise Baker, Karla McGregor, Kimberly Docking, Joanne Arciuli

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    65 Scopus citations


    Upon fast mapping, children rarely retain new words even over intervals as short as 5 min. In this study, we asked whether the memory process of encoding or consolidation is the bottleneck to retention. Forty-nine children, mean age 33 months, were exposed to eight 2- or-3-syllable nonce neighbors of words in their existing lexicons. Didactic training consisted of six exposures to each word in the context of its referent, an unfamiliar toy. Productions were elicited four times: immediately following the examiner's model, and at 1-min-, 5- min-, and multiday retention intervals. At the final two intervals, the examiner said the first syllable and provided a beat gesture highlighting target word length in syllables as a cue following any erred production. The children were highly accurate at immediate posttest. Accuracy fell sharply over the 1-min retention interval and again after an additional 5 min. Performance then stabilized such that the 5-min and multiday posttests yielded compara- ble performance. Given this time course, we conclude that it was not the post-encoding process of consolidation but the process of encoding itself that presented the primary bottleneck to retention. Patterns of errors and responses to cueing upon error suggested that word forms were particularly vulnerable to partial decay during the time course of encoding.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Article numberArticle 41
    JournalFrontiers in Psychology
    Issue numberFEB
    StatePublished - 2012


    • Consolidation
    • Encoding
    • Fast mapping
    • Memory
    • Retention
    • Word learning

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • General Psychology


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