Multimillion-dollar University of Iowa project studies how children learn language

Research may shed light on impact of shift to virtual learning in pandemic

Dylan Wagner, 11, works on a tablet Dev. 9 at the Growing Words Project in Cedar Rapids. This portion of the language pr
Dylan Wagner, 11, works on a tablet Dev. 9 at the Growing Words Project in Cedar Rapids. This portion of the language processing study being conducted by the University of Iowa looks at how quickly subjects can switch between responses. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Eastern Iowa students are being tested on their ability to recognize words, build vocabulary and develop crucial reading skills through a University of Iowa research project.

While the effort, called the Growing Words Project, began before the start of the coronavirus pandemic, researchers have an additional opportunity to study how students’ learning has been impacted by the closure of schools in March and the shift to more virtual learning this school year.

The goal is to figure out how basic language skills develop, said Bob McMurray, professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences and lead researcher on the project.

“It’s easy for parents, teachers and policymakers to take language for granted because it seems so effortless. But if you look closely, it develops slowly all the way through school years,” McMurray said.

McMurray is hoping to better understand how students of color, students from different socioeconomic backgrounds and students from rural communities learn language differently and what educators can do to improve their teaching methods

The project could also shed light on how children with dyslexia or language disorders learn.

McMurray is a little concerned about the effect of the coronavirus on language development for students.

Students in virtual learning may not be speaking as much in class or to their peers, said McMurray, whose daughter is enrolled in online learning in the Iowa City Community School District.


“They’re getting a lot of practice reading, but they’re not getting practice with language, and I think that worries me a little bit,” he said.

The goal is to test more than 300 children over the next four years, focusing on monolingual families, in first to fifth grades through online reading and language games and over Zoom.

A new research lab was opened this year in Cedar Rapids to make it easier for families in the Cedar Rapids and College Community school districts to participate, in addition to students also in the Iowa City schools.

The project originally was funded by a $2.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. This past spring, the project won an additional $1.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health that allows researchers to do brain scans of some of the children.

About 100 children in the project will have their brains scanned at two-year intervals. Research scientist Keith Apfelbaum said the scans will help researchers understand if language development leads brains to get bigger or if brain growth leads to more language development.

“The project is bigger and more impactful than anything we’ve ever done,” Apfelbaum said. “This is a chance to really see how children are developing, what’s driving those differences and what we can do about it.”

This is the longest project that Sneh Jhaveri, Psychological Brain Sciences staff research assistant at the UI, has participated in.

“When the project concludes, I’m excited to learn how children learn to read words, what the evolution of language looks like and other factors related to it like socioeconomic background or their own personality,” she said.


Kim Cousins, of Cedar Rapids, signed up her three children, Ender, 11, Penny, 9, and Mia, 8, last year to participate in the project. The students attend Coolidge Elementary School in Cedar Rapids.

Cousins found out about the project when the school emailed parents about the opportunity, she said.

She thought it would be a fun opportunity for her kids. They get to go to the research lab in Cedar Rapids and play computer games.

“It will be cool to be part of a study that could change the way they teach reading,” Cousins said. “The more tools they have the better.”

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