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BACKGROUND: It has been proposed that children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) have a selective deficit in procedural learning, with relatively spared declarative learning. In previous studies we and others confirmed deficits in procedural learning of sequences, using both verbal and nonverbal materials. Here we studied the same children using a task that implicates the declarative system, auditory-visual paired associate learning. There were parallel tasks for verbal materials (vocabulary learning) and nonverbal materials (meaningless patterns and sounds). METHODS: Participants were 28 children with SLI aged 7-11 years, 28 younger typically-developing children matched for raw scores on a test of receptive grammar, and 20 typically-developing children matched on chronological age. Children were given four sessions of paired-associate training using a computer game adopting an errorless learning procedure, during which they had to select a picture from an array of four to match a heard stimulus. In each session they did both vocabulary training, where the items were eight names and pictures of rare animals, and nonverbal training, where stimuli were eight visual patterns paired with complex nonverbal sounds. A total of 96 trials of each type was presented over four days. RESULTS: In all groups, accuracy improved across the four sessions for both types of material. For the vocabulary task, the age-matched control group outperformed the other two groups in the starting level of performance, whereas for the nonverbal paired-associate task, there were no reliable differences between groups. In both tasks, rate of learning was comparable for all three groups. CONCLUSIONS: These results are consistent with the Procedural Deficit Hypothesis of SLI, in finding spared declarative learning on a nonverbal auditory-visual paired associate task. On the verbal version of the task, the SLI group had a deficit in learning relative to age-matched controls, which was evident on the first block in the first session. However, the subsequent rate of learning was consistent across all three groups. Problems in vocabulary learning in SLI could reflect the procedural demands of remembering novel phonological strings; declarative learning of crossmodal links between auditory and visual information appears to be intact.

Original publication




Journal article


BMC Psychol

Publication Date





Declarative, Learning, Memory, Procedural, Procedural deficit hypothesis, Specific language impairment, Training, Vocabulary