Building a robust vocabulary in grade school is essential for academic success. Children from lower socioeconomic status (SES) households on average perform below their higher SES peers on word learning tasks, negatively impacting their vocabulary; however, significant variability exists within this group. Many children from low SES homes perform as well as, or better than, their higher SES peers on measures of word learning. The current study addresses what processes underlie this variability, by comparing the neural oscillations of 44 better versus worse word learners (ages 8–15 years) from lower SES households as they infer the meaning of unknown words. Better word learners demonstrated increases in theta and beta power as a word was learned, whereas worse word learners exhibited decreases in alpha power. These group differences in neural oscillatory engagement during word learning indicate there may be different strategies employed based on differences in children’s skills. Notably, children with greater vocabulary knowledge are more likely to exhibit larger beta increases, a strategy that is associated with better word learning. This sheds new light on the mechanisms that support word learning in children from low SES households.

This content is only available as a PDF.

Author notes

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. For a full description of the license, please visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode.