Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences


Richard G. Schwartz

Subject Categories



Children; Cochlear Implants; Deafness; Language Development; Language Processing; Working Memory


Children with cochlear implants (CIs) have exhibited difficulty accurately answering and producing wh-questions. The syntactic construction of wh-questions include syntactic movement, whereby the wh-question phrase that replaces the subject or object noun is fronted to the beginning of the sentence. This leaves a syntactic gap at the subject or object's original location, to be filled by the listener during immediate language processing. One view is that this syntactic gap is resolved by retaining that filler concept in working memory (WM), until it can be reintegrated into the wh-question. However, the CI population is also notable for WM deficits, which may hinder their ability to adequately comprehend and produce complex syntax.

The current study used eye tracking to yield data on the impact of WM demands on the processing of complex syntax in children with CIs. Sixteen CI users and 31 normal hearing (NH) children, aged 7;0-12;0, participated in an experiment where their eye movements were tracked across a four picture array, during the syntactic gap of 80 who and which questions. In 40 of the questions, WM demands were manipulated by the addition of two adjectives, corresponding to the span deficits found in previous studies. Fixations, or extended periods of eye gaze, to the target picture at the syntactic gap were compared between groups and within the CI group. Fixations were also compared to results from a battery of WM tasks including an n-back task and updating/span task. Results demonstrated no significant difference in eye gaze fixations to the target picture at the gap between CI and NH children; however, children with CIs were less likely to fixate towards the target picture than their NH peers. Significantly fewer fixations were found in the wh- questions lacking extraneous adjectives, as well as greater fixations towards object questions. Trends within the CI group demonstrated differences in syntactic processing between modes of auditory access. Error analyses also revealed differences in gaze patterns between the CI and NH groups in inaccurate trials. These results, in addition to time course analyses of gaze behavior, are discussed with relevance to the syntax processing abilities and WM skills of typically developing children and pediatric users of CI.

This research was generously supported by NIDCD grant 5R01DC011041.

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