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Background Speech Disrupts Working Memory Span in 5-Year-Old Children

Grieco-Calub, Tina M.1,2; Collins, Maya-Simone1; Snyder, Hillary E.1; Ward, Kristina M.1

doi: 10.1097/AUD.0000000000000636
Research Article: PDF Only

Objectives: The present study tested the effects of background speech and nonspeech noise on 5-year-old children’s working memory span.

Design: Five-year-old typically developing children (range = 58.6 to 67.6 months; n = 94) completed a modified version of the Missing Scan Task, a missing-item working memory task, in quiet and in the presence of two types of background noise: male two-talker speech and speech-shaped noise. The two types of background noise had similar spectral composition and overall intensity characteristics but differed in whether they contained verbal content. In Experiments 1 and 2, children’s memory span (i.e., the largest set size of items children successfully recalled) was subjected to analyses of variance designed to look for an effect of listening condition (within-subjects factor: quiet, background noise) and an effect of background noise type (between-subjects factor: two-talker speech, speech-shaped noise).

Results: In Experiment 1, children’s memory span declined in the presence of two-talker speech but not in the presence of speech-shaped noise. This result was replicated in Experiment 2 after accounting for a potential effect of proactive interference due to repeated administration of the Missing Scan Task.

Conclusions: Background speech, but not speech-shaped noise, disrupted working memory span in 5-year-old children. These results support the idea that background speech engages domain-general cognitive processes used during the recall of known objects in a way that speech-shaped noise does not.

1The Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA; and

2Hugh Knowles Hearing Center, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: The authors thank the families who participated in the study and Dr. Beverly Wright for helpful comments on the manuscript.

Partial funding for this study was provided by an Undergraduate Research Grant from Northwestern University awarded to M.-S.C. for completion of an undergraduate honors thesis. T.M.G.-C., M.-S.C., and H.E.S. designed the experiments. M.-S.C., H.E.S., and K.M.W. performed the experiments. T.M.G.-C. and K.M.W. analyzed the data. T.M.G.-C. wrote the manuscript with comments from M.-S.C., H.E.S., and K.M.W.

The authors have no conflicts of interest to disclose.

Address for correspondence: Tina M. Grieco-Calub, The Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Northwestern University, 2240 Campus Drive, Room 2–246, Evanston, IL 60208, USA. E-mail: tinagc@northwestern.edu

Received December 1, 2017; accepted May 31, 2018.

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