Procedural learning and language-related attainment in children

West, G. 1 & Hulme, C. 2

1 University College London
2 University of Oxford

Impaired procedural learning has been suggested as a possible cause of developmental language disorder (Nicholson & Fawcett, 2007; Ullman & Pierpont, 2005), but research has so far delivered inconsistent results. The majority of studies use extreme group designs, frequently with small sample sizes and unreported task reliability.

In the first of two studies, we tested a large representative sample of children on a range of procedural learning (Serial Reaction Time, Hebb Learning and Contextual Cueing) and declarative learning tasks and language related attainment measures. We assessed the reliability of all tasks. Attainment correlated with verbal explicit learning, but the procedural learning tasks, of a similar length to those in the literature, were found to have poor reliability and failed to correlate well with each other, or with attainment.

In the second study, children completed an extended 1000 trial serial reaction time task. Attentional variability was assessed throughout. Latent variable path analysis showed that attention during the task accounted entirely for the relationship between procedural learning and attainment.

These findings highlight the importance of establishing task reliability, as well as considering the potential effects of individual differences in basic cognitive processes such as attention in all investigations of procedural learning.