What's going on in your brain as you read this? UI researchers hope to find out

University of Iowa's 'Growing Words' project will study 400 Cedar Rapids, Iowa City students

Ellie McMurray, a fourth-grader at Mann Elementary in Iowa City, reads Nov, 20 during a media event in Cedar Rapids. Ell
Ellie McMurray, a fourth-grader at Mann Elementary in Iowa City, reads Nov, 20 during a media event in Cedar Rapids. Ellie’s father, Bob McMurray, is the principal investigator for the Growing Words research study, which seeks to understand how elementary school-aged students develop reading and language skills. (Molly Duffy/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — As you read this sentence, your brain is making a series of rapid choices. As it processes each word, it’s matching it to one of tens of thousands in most adults’ vocabularies — about 60,000 for a skilled reader.

“When you hear a word, you somehow magically, instantly come up with the meaning of that word,” said Bob McMurray, a professor in the University of Iowa’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “You hear ‘wizard’ and you think of Harry Potter. You hear ‘lizard’ and you think of dinosaurs.”

All readers — and listeners — do this, McMurray said, even first-graders who typically are choosing from a mental word bank of just 3,000 to 5,000 words.

“I don’t know about you guys, but I can’t get my children to decide what they’re going to have for breakfast in less than a second,” he said during a November media event. “Imagine trying to choose between 5,000 potential words three to five times a second.”

Just how children learn to make such quick determinations while reading and hearing words is the focus of a new research study of McMurray’s called Growing Words. It’s set to begin early next year.

His subjects will be first- through sixth-grade students in both the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City community school districts. With $3.24 million in total funding from the National Institutes of Health, McMurray and his research team will track some 400 students over four years.

At a computer, students will be presented with one word, visually or aurally, and four illustrations — one of which will match the word. Using eye-tracking technology that measures movement 250 times per second, researchers say they’ll be able to better decipher how students choose an option.


“It’s not that we think that kids are going to not be able to do the task,” said research scientist Keith Apfelbaum. “It’s how much they consider competitors or how quickly they can find that target. That’s what’s going to change from child to child and across development.”

Research from the Growing Words project is “an initial piece,” said Iowa Reading Research Center Director Deborah Reed, that could lead to evidence-based intervention strategies for struggling readers.

“It’s really important to build that basic understanding within our field so that we can make decisions about what the next steps will be and identify — what we would call as researchers — malleable factors,” Reed said. “We know the typical progression that students are going to be following. What happens with kids who are struggling, we look for those points where we could design some instruction or some intervention to further assist students.”

Cedar Rapids Community School District officials said they look forward to someday using insights learned from the Growing Words project to inform classroom teaching.

In particular, district literacy specialist Amy Harger said the study should bolster the district’s understanding of students’ oral language skills — those skills that are built up by things like talking aloud to a baby or asking children to respond to questions in full sentences.

The district has fewer tools to measure oral language than literacy, Harger added. Eric Christenson, executive director for elementary education at the Cedar Rapids Community School District, said new information could prompt curriculum changes.

“I’m excited for the University of Iowa to give us those results, and to really look at and see, based on the results they’re gathering, what we can do differently and where we can possibly adjust our instruction, Christenson said. “Especially around the area of oral language development.”

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