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Learning and Individual Differences 14 (2004) 137 – 151 Working memory performance of Italian students with foreign language learning difficulties a Department of Psychology, University of Pavia, Piazza Botta 6, 27100 Pavia, Italy b Department of Psychology, University of Padova, Padova, Italy Received 28 April 2003; received in revised form 10 November 2003; accepted 22 January 2004 It has been suggested that the ability to learn a foreign language is related to working memory. However, there is no clear evidence about which component of working memory may be involved.
Two experiments investigated working memory problems in groups of seventh and eighth grade Italian children with difficulties in learning English as a second language. They were compared with control groups of childrenmatched for age, education, school, and intelligence who differed for foreign language learning ability.
Experiment 1 focused on clarifying how modality-specific the memory problem of children with a foreign language learning difficulty (FLLD) is. Verbal working memory tasks (forward and backward digit span) wereproposed together with visuospatial working memory (VSWM) tasks. Groups showed a significant difference onlyin the more passive verbal working memory task, that is, the forward digit span.
Experiment 2 focused on clarifying how central the verbal working memory problem of students with an FLLD is. A nonword repetition task and an Italian version of the listening span test were proposed. Groups differedsignificantly in both tasks. However, differences in the listening span test disappeared when nonword repetitionperformance was partialed out. It was concluded that a difficulty in learning a foreign language is mainly related tothe more passive aspects of verbal working memory, typically associated with the articulatory loop.
D 2004 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Working memory performance; FLLD; Foreign language Research on learning problems has recently focused on foreign language learning difficulties (FLLD), a student’s specific trouble in learning a second language * Corresponding author. Tel.: +39-382-506271; fax: +39-382-506272.
E-mail address: (P. Palladino).
1041-6080/$ - see front matter D 2004 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2004.01.001 P. Palladino, C. Cornoldi / Learning and Individual Differences 14 (2004) 137–151 Sparks, & Javorsky, 1998; Palladino, 2003). Students with FLLD have been described as having anaverage or above-average level of intelligence and adequate scholastic achievement but a specificimpairment in foreign language learning (FLL). Diklage(1971), and documented cases of students who performed less well in FLthan in other courses, or even failed. However, compared with a control group, they did not differ inintelligence Although different disability profiles can be identified in young children with FLLD Ganschow, 1993), they typically seem to have problems with native-language learning. However,although FLLD often appears to be associated with specific language disorders, it can also emerge as amore specific and selective problem, especially with older children or adolescents. In fact, older childrenwith FLLD may show only slight difficulties in language and reading tasks. Furthermore, the pattern ofdifficulties of FLLD children may be rather complex. In one study Pohlman, & Patton, 1992), low-risk postsecondary FL learners exhibited significantly higher phono-logical/orthographic and syntactic skills than did high-risk FL learners, but did not differ in semanticprocessing. Recently, found that native-language decoding skillpredicted second-language proficiency in college-aged adults. The relationship was mediated by theparticipants’ second-language word decoding ability.
Furthermore, showed that individual differences in foreign language proficiency are related to native language proficiency, especially at higher levels of foreign languageacquisition. In bilingual children, a close interdependence between native and foreign languages wasconsistently found in several studies explored individualdifferences in foreign language learning and focused on the predictive variables of foreign languagelearning. On the basis of the results, he devised a powerful test to measure aptitude to second-languagelearning, the Modern Language Aptitude Test which also evaluatesfirst-language grammar and phonological sensitivity as well as associative learning. In conclusion, awidely accepted view assumes that native language skills play a critical role in the acquisition of FLlearning and, therefore, in FLLD (linguistic coding differences hypothesis, LCDH; 1998).
Significant parallel research contributions to the study of second-language learning come from investigations into the relationship between memory and first/second-language (L1–L2) vocabularyknowledge. According to the working memory model of the verbal short-termmemory subsystem (the so-called articulatory loop) has a phonological store in which phonologicaltraces are constantly refreshed by an articulatory rehearsal. The possibility that a new word, just heard,could become a new long-term lexical knowledge depending on the efficiency of the articulatory loop. Inparticular, nonsense word repetition could be considered a pure measure of phonological memory, asnonwords are new phonological combinations, which are not likely to have been encoded previously.
Therefore, nonword repetition is, in principle, a phonological memory measure independent ofvocabulary knowledge. However, it is predictive of vocabulary acquisition in first and second languages.
Several empirical studies have demonstrated the parallel and independent role of phonological memory, measured with a nonword repetition task, and previous vocabulary knowledge to vocabularylearning 1989; Papagno, Valentine, & Baddeley, 1991; Thorn & Gathercole, 1999). Further researches have triedto extend the relationship between phonological memory and word learning to foreign languagelearning. demonstrated that a phonological memory measure, requiring the repetition P. Palladino, C. Cornoldi / Learning and Individual Differences 14 (2004) 137–151 of nonwords that sound like foreign language (English) words, was a good predictor of learning Englishas a second language in Finnish children. English learning was not tested directly by researchers but wasobtained from a scholastic proficiency evaluation. When English has been tested independently byresearchers, a significant correlation between phonological memory (nonwords repetition) and foreignlanguage learning was still found 2002). also found that phonological memory, measured with a task similar with the oneused by Service, is significantly related to foreign language learning. However, the size of participants’English vocabulary appeared as an additional important factor in foreign language learning.
Evidence concerning the phonological memory deficit in children with FLLD can be better understood within a theoretical analysis of working memory. In the working memory model of (1986), working memory is divided into three main components, that is, a central executive supervisingthe system and two components involved in processing modality-specific information, either visuospa-tial or phonological, that is, the visuospatial sketchpad and the articulatory loop, respectively. Thearticulatory loop includes storage (the phonological store) and maintenance functions (rehearsal loop),which operates on maintaining phonological traces. According to Baddeley’s working memory model,the specific phonological memory problem of children with FLLD could be referred to a specificimpairment of the articulatory loop, but should not involve the central executive component nor thevisuospatial sketch pad.
Similar, but not identical, predictions can be formulated according to different working memory models. In particular, developed a modified model of workingmemory in which two continua expand according to active versus passive process dichotomy and verbalversus visuospatial modality dichotomy. The model can explain empirical evidence obtained fromdevelopmental research on learning disabilities (Cornoldi, Carretti & De Beni, 2001; 2001) and evidence from individual differences in working memory, avoiding constraints due to thedivision of working memory into independent systems. According to the model of Cornoldi and Vecchi,the specific phonological memory problem of children with FLLD could also involve more active andcontrolled working memory processes, to a decreasing extent. In fact, it is assumed that it is possible todistinguish more passive versus more active verbal working memory tasks within the different measuresof verbal working memory. Verbal repetition tasks, such as the forward digit span and the nonwordrepetition tasks, are considered as quite passive working memory tasks, as they simply require therepetition in sequential order of speech strings just heard without any transformation of the items. Aslight transformation is required with the backward digit span test, which can be classified as more activethan the forward digit span test. A more active measure of verbal working memory is a quite complexreading/listening span task like the one originally proposed by and iswidely used in the field of language difficulties. The task requires the participant to process a series ofsentences and then to recall only the last word of each sentence in the series. In the ‘listening’ version,the material is presented auditorily, whereas in the ‘reading’ version, it must be read. Dissociationsbetween passive and active verbal tasks have been observed, for example, with poor comprehenders whoperform lower in the reading or listening span test compared with a control group, but perform similarlyin digit or word span tasks Palladino, Pazzaglia, and Cornoldi (1998) obtained similar results by comparing good and poorcomprehenders with an Italian version of the listening and digit span tests. Poor comprehenders’ lowerperformance in the active verbal working memory task was associated with a higher number of intrusionerrors, which the authors argued were due to inhibitory difficulties. In fact, the listening span task P. Palladino, C. Cornoldi / Learning and Individual Differences 14 (2004) 137–151 requires controlling not only the activation of relevant information, but also the suppression of no longerrelevant information. However, poor comprehenders do not seem to have similar problems in the controlof working memory when visuospatial material is presented Only a few studies have investigated the relationship between active working memory measures and foreign language learning. showed a strong relationship between workingmemory performance in a foreign language reading span test and the foreign language proficiency ofJapanese adults. Similar results were obtained by who showed that therelationship between a foreign language reading span test and foreign language reading comprehensionwas still significant even after the common variance shared with vocabulary and grammatical knowledgewas removed. This relationship was still significant when the variance shared with intelligence and agewas removed in children in Grades 5–7 However, this line of research does notclearly separate second-language learning, measured as grammar and vocabulary knowledge, fromreading comprehension ability. Furthermore, these studies have the methodological limitations typical ofcorrelational designs that tried to overcome when testing a path model.
They proposed listening span tests, in both the native and foreign language, and a syntacticcomprehension task. They tested a model that obtained a good fit index (CFI=.96), in which nativelanguage working memory influences foreign language working memory that, in turn, influencessyntactic comprehension. These results are methodologically stronger than the correlational results, but amain confounding emerged. In fact, Miyake and Friedman measured working memory with the typicallistening span procedure which requires understanding sentences andrecalling their final words. Unfortunately, in the syntactic comprehension task, the request was again tounderstand sentences (although probably syntactically more complex), and this may have affected theresults.
In general, the relationship between foreign language learning and working memory has been examined from various perspectives. However, the different results obtained do not fit coherently asvarious memory measures have been presented and working memory was not systematically investi-gated to exclude/include the involvement of specific components. Recent models of working memoryshould help in establishing the nature of the working memory deficit in children with FLLD. Inparticular, on the basis of the model of evidence has been collected to show that adeficit should involve the articulatory loop, whereas no evidence is available for the visuospatial sketchpad. Evidence regarding the central executive is unclear, and the issue has many facets. In fact, theabove-quoted studies (e.g., have shown workingmemory impairments by using tasks which involve central executive components, according toa view which is questioned by Cornoldi et al. (2001) and (2003). These authors assume, on the one hand, that the tasks involve components in the verticalworking memory continuum, which are still modality specific, as they are an intermediate between themost passive phonological components and the most central and active amodal components. On theother hand, they assume that the disabilities associated with the phonological treatment of informationshould present decreasing impairments moving from the passive to the active components of verbalworking memory.
The present study was aimed at investigating FLLD children further by examining their working memory performances. The main goal was to systematically investigate working memory with tasksthat differed for modality processing and the amount of active processing request, that is, byadministering tasks which measure not only verbal passive memory but also visuospatial and active P. Palladino, C. Cornoldi / Learning and Individual Differences 14 (2004) 137–151 working memory. In testing phonological memory, different from previous studies using nonwordsthat sound like a foreign language, we decided to use words (Experiment 1) and nonwords(Experiment 2) belonging to, or sounding like, the first language. In fact, the literature on clinicalprofiles of students with FLLD seems to suggest main problems in the first language, which appear toinduce foreign language problems Therefore, if learning a foreignlanguage or, more specifically, learning foreign vocabulary, is mainly related to first-languageproblems, and phonological memory is responsible for first-language learning, the memory perfor-mance of students with FLLD should also be impaired when tested with nonwords sounding like theirfirst language words.
In this study, to have a group with an important and specific difficulty in foreign language learning, we only selected children who met some precise criteria (a difficulty in foreign language learningassociated with a high performance in an intelligence test). This had the implication that the selectedgroups we studied were rather small but specific, thus offering information on a particular subtype oflearning disability, rarely studied by the literature. Experiment 1 was intended to test the hypothesisthat children with FLLD have problems in passive verbal working memory but not in visuospatialworking memory (VSWM). For this purpose, children with FLLD and controls were administeredpassive and more active verbal and visuospatial tasks. Verbal working memory was tested not withspecific phonological nonsense material but with standard digit span tasks, in the most passive version(forward digit span) and in a more controlled version (backwards digit span), to examine thegenerality of the verbal working memory deficit of children with FLLD. VSWM was tested with threetasks that have been shown to describe well the control continuum along the visuospatial modalitythat is, the most passive Corsi Block Task requiring the repetition of asequence of spatial locations, in the slightly more controlled backwards version and in a more activeselective task. Experiment 2 tested the extent to which a more active verbal working memory isimpaired in children with FLLD. Children identified with FLLD were administered a low-controlverbal working memory task, the nonword repetition task, and an active verbal working memory task,the listening span test.
A group of 18 seventh and eighth grade Italian students (13 males and 5 females) with FLLD participated in this experiment. They had good intelligence but a specific problem in foreign languagelearning (English). For some children, there were records of earlier language and reading difficulties, butat the time of testing, these difficulties appeared less critical than foreign language difficulties. Childrenwith FLLD were compared with a control group of 24 Italian students (12 males and 12 females) withgood foreign language learning, and similar age, education, and general intelligence. The groups wereselected from a population of 380 students, 177 (98 females and 79 males) seventh graders (mean age12.39) and 203 (93 females and 110 males) eighth graders (mean age 13.38). At the initial screening, all380 children were proposed an English Learning Task (ELT) collectively including anEnglish dictation and 19 multiple-choice questions on English grammar and syntactic rules based onexpected school achievement according to their grade. To check general intelligence, the children were P. Palladino, C. Cornoldi / Learning and Individual Differences 14 (2004) 137–151 also proposed with two subtests, the spatial and reasoning tests, from the Primary Mental AptitudeBattery The criteria of selection were as follows: FLLD group: a score lower than the 20th percentile in the ELT, but a score equal to or higher than the50th percentile in the PMA spatial and reasoning tests;Control Group: a score equal to or higher than the 50th percentile in the ELT and the PMA spatial andreasoning tests.
Foreign language teachers completed a questionnaire to obtain their personal evaluation of each student’s foreign language proficiency on a scale from 1 (no difficulty) to 4 (great difficulty). Groupsdiffered significantly in their teachers’ evaluation, t(1,40) = 4.90, P < .001 (FLLD group: M = 2.72S.D. = 0.96, control group: M = 1.50 S.D. = 0.66).
The mean scores and mean age of the groups are shown in The following memory tasks were administered individually to each child:Forward and backward digit span tests A forward and a backward digit span test were administered individually in a quiet room. The materials and procedures adopted were from theWechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (1987). Each participant was required to repeat a series of digitsimmediately after the presentation in sequence, and in forward (forward digit span) or reverse (backwarddigit span) order. After two consecutive errors, the task was interrupted. The child’s span was defined bythe highest number of digits correctly repeated.
Corsi Block Tests The participants were presented a small board on which some cubes were placed. The cubes were numbered on the examiner’s side (who could thereforepresent the sequence of locations in the required order and check the correctness of the response). Duringthe presentation phase, the examiner progressively indicated positions and then asked the participant torepeat the sequence. The various positions were presented as a sequence, an ideal pathway. Thebackwards version of the Corsi test was also proposed. Participants were asked to indicate the positionsstarting from the last, going back to the first.
Selective VSWM test (This task is a recent attempt to provide a visuospatial sibling of the listening span task of (This task wasadministered in the context of another study that involved the children of this study as well as otherchildren). The participants were presented successively with two or three or four sequences of threepositions on a 4 Â 4 matrix of cubes on a small board. They were required to both decide whether each Table 1Mean ages and mean scores (and standard deviations) in the English learning tasks and PMA subtests for the FLLD and controlgroups P. Palladino, C. Cornoldi / Learning and Individual Differences 14 (2004) 137–151 sequence of three positions is aligned and, after having completed the task for the whole sequences, toindicate on the matrix the last position of each sequence in the order of presentation.
Performance was defined by the number of final positions of each matrix (out of a maximum of 54) correctly recalled in the original order. Errors were also computed: sequential (incorrect order of targetlocations), intrusion (recall of locations which were pointed to in the same series of matrices, but werenot target ones), and inventions (recall of positions which were not indicated).
The means and standard deviations of memory performance for the two groups are displayed in A MANOVA was conducted on the memory scores as dependent variables and the group (FLLD vs.
control) as the independent variable. The multivariate main effect of group approached significance,F(8,33) = 2.20, P=.054, g2=.35. However, from it can be seen that groups had similar scores inmost of the indices. In fact, from the analysis, it emerged that the groups significantly differed only in theforward digit span test, in which the FLLD group showed a poorer performance, F(1,40) = 5.01, P < .05,g2=.11, and in the number of sequential errors at the VSWM test, F(1,40) = 6.48, P < .05, g2=.14, inwhich, surprisingly, the FLLD group had fewer sequential errors than the control group had. In the CorsiBlock Task, groups recalled a similar number of correct final positions, F(1,40) < 1. In the VSWM task,the groups recalled a similar number of correct final positions, F(1,40) < 1, and made a low andcomparable number of intrusion and invention errors, F(1,40) < 1. The complete list of statistical indicesis reported in In agreement with our hypotheses, students with FLLD appeared to have a specific problem in working memory related to the nature of the material and processes, rather than a general difficulty and abroad memory problem. In fact, groups performed similarly in the more passive visuospatial memorytasks (Corsi tasks) requiring them to remember positions in sequential or reversed order. Furthermore,the groups were not different when a higher control was required in VSWM, as their performance withselective tasks on a matrix were substantially similar for recall profile and errors. However, students withFLLD showed a working memory problem with a memory task using first language items (digits). Thisevidence shows the relationship between native and foreign language, thus supporting the hypothesis Table 2Mean scores (and standard deviations) in the memory tasks of the FLLD and control groups P. Palladino, C. Cornoldi / Learning and Individual Differences 14 (2004) 137–151 that tasks involving first-language materials play a critical role in the acquisition of FL and, therefore, inFLLD In particular, this result specifies the previously mentionedhypothesis suggesting that native-language verbal working memory is significantly related to foreign-language learning.
These results suggest that the memory problems of students with FLLD are circumscribed to the verbal modality passive processes. In fact, the only significant difference between the groups concernedthe forward digit span. The fact that we found a smaller nonsignificant difference between groups in thebackward digit span test seems to suggest that the verbal working memory deficit of children with FLLDinvolves active verbal working memory only marginally. In fact, the backward digit span task requiresreversing the order of presentation and is considered a more controlled, hence, less passive, workingmemory measure. This result is in contrast with studies that have also shown an impairment in the activeverbal working memory of children with FLLD. To clarify this issue, a second study was run.
Two groups, a FLLD and a control group, were selected and compared in two verbal working memory tasks. Memory tasks were administered to clarify whether the memory problems of the children withFLLD are related to phonological storage only, or also emerge when storage and processing are requiredsimultaneously. In this research, the children’s school only allowed us to carry out a short sessioninvolving two tasks. The tasks were distinguished according to the nature of the memory request, a morepassive maintenance task and a more active working memory task. To have a purer measure of thephonological store capacity than the digit span, a nonword repetition task was proposed, independent oflong-term lexical knowledge but able to offer information about the influence on the child’s memory ofthe likeness between the nonword and the real native language words Tomeasure active verbal working memory, the Italian version of the listening span test, widely used and considered as a measure of active verbal working memory, wasproposed.
A group of 13 Italian students (9 males and 4 females) with FLLD, with normal intelligence but a specific problem in foreign language learning (English), participated in this experiment. They werecompared with a control group of 17 Italian students (8 males and 9 females) with good foreign languagelearning and similar age, education, and level of general intelligence. They were selected from apopulation of 177 students, 89 (51 females and 38 males) seventh graders (mean age 12.38) and 88 (45females and 43 males) eighth graders (mean age 14.42). They were administered the previouslydescribed ELT, collectively, and a visuospatial subtest from the Primary Mental Aptitude BatteryThe criteria of selection were similar with that adopted in Experiment 1(with slightly more lenient criteria for the group with FLLD than in the preceding Experiment due to thesmaller size of the original sample): FLLD group: a score lower than the 25th percentile of the total score for the ELT but a score equal toor higher than the 50th percentile for the PMA visuospatial task; P. Palladino, C. Cornoldi / Learning and Individual Differences 14 (2004) 137–151 Control group: a score equal to or higher than the 50th percentile for the ELT and the PMAvisuospatial task.
The groups’ mean scores and mean ages are shown in Two memory tasks were proposed individually:Nonword repetition task The test comprised 32 nonwords, 8 for each of the following lengths: 3, 4, 5, and 6 syllables. For each length, 4 nonwords were very similar withItalian words [high word-likeness, (WL)] and 4 were only slightly similar (low WL). Inasmuch asthe stimuli were presented orally, similarity was evaluated on a phonological basis, the number ofwords obtained substituting a single phoneme without changing its position in the string. Due to thetypical features of Italian words, where it is easier for short words than for longer words to obtainnew words from the substitution of a letter, the criteria for high and low WL slightly varieddepending on nonword length: 3-syllable nonwords: Low WL, number of words V 1; High WL, number of words z 24-syllable nonwords: Low WL, number of words = 0; High WL, number of words z 15-syllable nonwords: Low WL, number of words = 0; High WL, number of words = 16-syllable nonwords: Low WL, number of words = 0; High WL, number of words = 1 The grouping of vowels and consonants was counterbalanced between different-length words.
For all words, the stress was placed on the penultimate syllable according to the most frequentItalian stressing Nonwords were orally presented at a rateof one item per second in pairs of the same length and WL in two lists. Each list started withthe shortest series and gradually increased in length. The participants were instructed to repeataloud each sequence of two nonwords in sequential order immediately after its presentation.
Their performance was recorded and a score of 1 was assigned to each nonword correctlyrepeated.
Listening span test An Italian version of the listening span task of and Carpenter (1980) was presented. The test required the participants to semantically analyse asequence of sentences presented orally to judge their truth and, at the same time, to memorize the lastword in each sentence. Eighty sentences were presented in four different sequences of 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6sentences each.
Table 3Mean ages and mean scores (and standard deviations) in the English tasks and PMA subtests for the FLLD and control groups(Experiment 2) P. Palladino, C. Cornoldi / Learning and Individual Differences 14 (2004) 137–151 Fig. 1. Mean scores in nonword repetition tasks with high and low WL stimuli for the FLLD and control groups.
In scoring this test, we considered the following indices (see 1. decision errors—the total number of errors in a semantic analysis of sentences;2. number of recalled words—the total number of final words recalled during the whole test;3. intrusions errors—the total number of words incorrectly recalled, but which appeared in the sentences 4. sequential errors—the total number of target words recalled in an incorrect order.
The means and standard deviations for the nonword repetition task are shown in A 2 Â 2 ANOVA was conducted on correct repetition scores, with group as a between-subject factor with twolevels (FLLD vs. control group) and WL as a within-subject factor with two levels (high vs. low). Amain effect of WL was found, F(1,28) = 115.89, MSE = 2.27, P < .001, g2=.81, as high WL advantagednonword repetition. Furthermore, a main effect of group was found, F(1,28) = 18.03, MSE = 5.36,P < .001, g2=.39, due to a lower performance by the FLLD group. No interaction was found betweengroup and WL factors, F < 1. As can be seen in FLLD participants were able to correctly repeat amean number of nonwords lower than the control group did, independently of WL.
The means and standard deviations for the listening span test indices are reported in The participants were able to follow instructions and shift from the task of judging sentence truthto the recall task. In fact, errors in sentence judgement were very low although, significantly Table 4Mean scores (and standard deviations) in the listening span test for the FLLD and control groups (Experiment 2) P. Palladino, C. Cornoldi / Learning and Individual Differences 14 (2004) 137–151 different between groups, t(1,28) = 4.29, P < .01 (FLLD group: M = 1.23, S.D.=.73; control group:M = 0.29, S.D.=.47). Concerning the listening span test, a MANOVA was performed with the threememory indices as dependent variables and groups as the independent variable. The multivariateanalysis showed that the main effect of group was not significant, F(3,25) = 2.48, P=.09, g2=.23,but that the groups differed significantly in final recall, F(1,27) = 5.08, P < .05, g2=.16. As can beseen in the FLLD group had a poorer memory performance. However, although FLLDparticipants performed generally lower in the task, they did not show a significantly higher numberof errors than the control participants did, either for intrusions or sequential errors that are typicalof populations with low working memory performance The complete list ofstatistical indices is reported in The same outcome emerged with the use of separateStudent’s t test comparisons between groups for each memory index, as the groups significantlydiffered only in final recall, t(1,28) = 2.58, P < .01.
To test the hypothesis that the FLLD participants’ lower working memory performance in the listening span test could be simply a side effect of a poor phonological maintenance in working memory,an analysis of covariance was conducted comparing the groups for working memory recall, with theirnonword repetition overall score as a covariate. Results showed that the significant difference betweengroups disappears if a measure of phonological maintenance is covariated, F(1,27) < ,1 MSE= 56.51,P = n.s, g2 = close to zero.
The results of the second experiment confirm previous evidence of a relationship between FLLD and verbal working memory. Furthermore, a distinction between a less and a more controlled verbal workingmemory task was made by presenting two different tasks: a passive nonword repetition task and thelistening span test, a complex double task. FLLD participants performed worse in both tasks. Theyrecalled, on average, about five nonwords less than the control group did, and about eight final wordsless. WL affected the performance of both groups to a similar extent, suggesting that FLLD children’sdifficulty with the task is independent of the linguistic properties of the material. A similar effect wasobtained by comparing dyslexic and control children on a list-recall task.
The fact that the FLLD group had difficulty in both tasks could be interpreted as evidence of a verbal working memory problem involving both the phonological-articulatory loop and thecomponent measured by the listening span test, that is, the central executive, according to themodel of and the active components of verbal memory, according to the model ofHowever, this result should be in contrast with the results of thepreceding Experiment showing that both active verbal working memory, measured by the backwardsdigit span, and the more controlled VSWM processes, measured by the selective VSWM task, arenot impaired in the FLLD group. The covariance analysis partially changed the picture andsuggested that the FLLD group’s difficulty with the listening span test could be due, at least in part,to working memory phonological problems. This result supports the evidence obtained inExperiment 1 with forward digit span test, as nonword repetition could be considered as a measureof the phonological store capacity, though purer than the digit span, Furthermore, these results are coherent with evidence obtained by with native-language learning, and by and withsecond-language learning.
P. Palladino, C. Cornoldi / Learning and Individual Differences 14 (2004) 137–151 The aim of the present study was to investigate the relationship between foreign language learning and working memory. Several studies have addressed this topic but with different, and not alwaysconverging, research paradigms and measures. The approach adopted in the present study is based ona design often applied in individual difference research, in which matched groups, who differ in acritical learning variable, are compared. In the present study, the FLLD group was selected with acomposite test that mirrors scholastic learning requirements in Italian schools, measuring different, butinterrelated, aspects of their knowledge of English, such as phonics, vocabulary, and grammar. Thisselection largely overlaps that used in clinical –educational studies (see, e.g., 1986, 1995) and appears to be the best choice for this preliminary phase in the study of FLLD.
However, it obviously requires further controls based either on more specific (e.g., only vocabulary) ormore general (e.g., with a greater focus on semantic aspects and associated learning disabilities)selection criteria.
The results of the present study show that verbal working memory is specifically poor in the FLLD group, as measured with both a forward digit span (Experiment 1) and a nonword repetitiontask (Experiment 2). These results are coherent with evidence showing a relationship betweenforeign language vocabulary knowledge and phonological working memory, with results for first-language learning difficulty in foreign learning disability. Furthermore, the results of the presentstudy extend previous results in two principal ways. First, they show that foreign language learningis related not only to foreign language phonological working memory problems Service, 1992) but also to native-language phonological working memory problems. Second, theyintegrate the evidence for native-language phonological problems, with results showing that studentswith a foreign language difficulty have related problems in their native language (see, e.g.,The fact that two different groups of FLLD children failed in twodifferent measures of phonological working memory offers evidence of the generality andconsistency of the effect. However, as the phonological working memory involves differentprocesses and can be tested with various types of measures future,more systematic research is needed, which administers to groups of FLLD children large batteries ofworking memory tasks.
Until now, no study has examined whether a working memory difficulty in FLLD children is specific, or whether it involves all aspects of working memory, including VSWM. Our results clearly show thatchildren with specific FLLD do not have specific problems in VSWM. The two groups were notsignificantly different in any of the VSWM measures, except one (order errors), where the FLLD groupwas even better. The result concerning spatial order errors not only strongly supports the assumption thatFLLD do not have VSWM problems, but it also shows that linguistic difficulties do not necessarilyimply general problems in processing sequential information. It must also be noted that our selectioncriteria, which includes children with specific problems in FL but matched for general cognitivecompetencies, contributed to producing such clear-cut results.
A further aim of the present study was to examine to what extent more controlled verbal working memory processes are involved. Therefore, in Experiment 2, two measures were proposed: a lesscontrolled phonological working memory test (nonword repetition task) and a more controlled workingmemory test (listening span test). It must be noted that previous studies & Sawyer, 1992; Miyake & Friedman, 1998) found a relationship between controlled verbal memory and P. Palladino, C. Cornoldi / Learning and Individual Differences 14 (2004) 137–151 foreign language learning. According to the working memory model proposed by thelistening span test should be a measure of the central executive; therefore, children with FLLD should alsohave an impairment in the central executive. This prediction conflicts with our results with the verbalworking memory tasks and with the observation that our children with FLLD do not have any problem inthe selective VSWM, which requires a type of control similar with that required by the listening span task.
We think that our results are more compatible with the continuum model of working memory Vecchi, 2000, 2003), which assumes that the working memory measures should be distinguishedaccording to the type of content (verbal vs. visuospatial) and should be located at different points alongthe continuum of control activity. According to the latter continuum concerning the verbal areas ofworking memory, the listening span test and the backward digit span test are closer, and the nonwordrepetition and the forward digit span test are farther from the extreme pole of highly controlled memoryprocesses. The continuity between points also makes it possible to anticipate results that do notnecessarily reflect an all-or-nothing effect. On the basis of a hypothesis of a specific failure of FLLDchildren in tasks concerning the low control pole of the verbal continuum (phonological memory andforwards digit span), the continuum model predicts a decreased impairment in correspondence withincreases along the verbal continuum. This prediction is substantially coherent with our results showing asignificant difference between the groups in the two low-control passive verbal working memory tasksand some less evident effects for the more controlled tasks. In fact, we found a slight, but not significant,difference in the backwards digit span and an ambiguous effect in the other active verbal task, as thedifference in the listening span test disappeared when the phonological working memory scores werepartialed out. These results are not so easily explained by the model of Baddeley, which suggests afractionation between a peripheral phonological loop and a central executive component, unless it isassumed that both components (and not only the central executive) are involved in the listening span task.
In conclusion, the present research offers further evidence of an impairment of the passive components of verbal working memory in FLLD children, typically associated with the phonologicalsubsystem of working memory. Furthermore, it is clearly shown that VSWM is not involved. Finally,evidence concerning the active components of verbal working memory is less clear, suggesting thatsome impairment could be present, but less severe than for passive components. Altogether, these datashow the importance of using articulated models of working memory for examining working memorydeficits in specific populations.
We sincerely thank Chiara Braga, Patrizia Caricato and Stefania Ungaro for their assistance in preparing material, testing children and scoring test performances. We also wish to thank ElisabetService for her useful comments on a preliminary version of the manuscript.
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