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Boys Town National Research Hospital & Rush University Receive a Shared NIH Research Grant



Thursday, March 18, 2021

Anyone who has ever spent time in a highly interactive school environment knows how noisy all that input and feedback can be.  

That's why researchers Katherine Gordon, Ph.D., Research Scientist in the Center for Childhood Deafness, Language and Learning at Boys Town National Research Hospital®, and Tina Grieco-Calub, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Rush University Medical Center, are studying how constant noise affects children's ability to learn and retain new words. This work is being funded by a grant through the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Katherine Gordon, Ph.D.

Tina Grieco-Calub, Ph.D.

A New Focus Brings New Collaboration

Boys Town Hospital has been a leader in childhood hearing research since its inception in 1977. In recent years, interdisciplinary research questions on the relation between hearing and language arose. As a result, a team of language researchers was assembled to complement the team of hearing researchers, leading to many collaborative projects.

“In 2017, Boys Town National Research Hospital began building a program devoted to research in language science. Dr. Gordon was our first hire, and she continues to be an essential part of that program. Her newly funded project with Dr. Grieco-Calub marries our more recent focus on language with our traditional focus on hearing. I can't imagine a better team for advancing our understanding of the effect of noise on children's language learning," explained Karla McGregor, Ph.D., and Director at the Center for Childhood Deafness, Language and Learning at Boys Town Hospital.

The two researchers were introduced by Lori Leibold, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Hearing Research at Boys Town Hospital, who felt that their unique sets of skills would work well together.

“After learning of their research interests, I told both that I thought they should meet. Dr. Grieco-Calub visited Boys Town National Research Hospital in person and we set up a meeting between Katie [Dr. Gordon] and Tina [Dr. Grieco-Calub]. The rest is history," recalls Leibold. Leibold serves as a consultant on the grant.

Language and Noise

Language learning is an established field, but for years it has not included the noise component. Research has been primarily conducted in quiet settings. On the other side is hearing science, which has mostly focused on how people perceive words they already know, not how they learn new words in noisy environments. Both fields have gaps in knowledge, and Gordon and Grieco-Calub are targeting those gaps together to figure out how children learn new words in noisy environments.  

Noise and Environment

Different types of environments contain different types of background noise. This grant will allow Boys Town Hospital and Rush University Medical Center to look at how those different types and intensities of noise affect word learning. For example, in a classroom, there might be a fan running and kids talking in the background; right now, the effects of these factors on new language acquisition are unknown.

Children live, play and learn in environments that are often noisy. To understand language development, it is essential to understand how children learn language in different types of noise. Furthermore, there are some children who may particularly struggle with learning language in noise, such as children who are hard-of-hearing and children with language disorders. This study's long-term goal is to determine factors that can be changed to support word learning in the typical classroom environment. This should benefit all children, but especially benefit children who are strongly affected by the noise in their environments.

For more information on the study parameters, see Effects of background noise on word learning in preschool-age children. As this study progresses, watch for Boys Town Hospital and Rush University Medical Center to publish additional updates.