Interview With Dr. Jean Gordon of University of Iowa

Dr. Jean Gordon is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Iowa. She teaches courses on aphasia and typical aging. Her research focuses on the processes of word retrieval in normal speakers, and in speakers with acquired neurogenic language disorders (particularly aphasia). She is interested in exploring the factors which make words easier or harder to retrieve, and how these factors influence the production of speech errors. She is also interested in determining what contributes to impressions of fluency in aphasia. A third area of study, related to these two aspects of expressive language, is the examination of how stereotypes are triggered when a communication partner is listening to an older individual or someone with aphasia.

Note: You should consult with your doctor or speech pathologist for recommendations on treatment. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr. Gordon and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of

How did you become interested in researching word retrieval?

I was a word nerd before I even knew what speech-language pathology was. I studied languages in my undergraduate program, and was interested in how different words can represent the same concept. When I learned about aphasia, I became intrigued by the way that individuals with aphasia come up with the wrong words, sometimes producing words that seem to have no relationship to the ones they were looking for.

How has our knowledge of word retrieval improved over the past couple of decades?

I think the way that researchers and clinicians think about lexical retrieval and its breakdown has evolved from thinking about the words themselves to thinking about the connections between words, and the connections from ideas to words to sounds. Current models of lexical retrieval (called interactive activation models) focus on how words get activated in the moment, and how other words—words that are connected to the target word—become active at the same time.

How are we able to use this knowledge to help those with aphasia and other neurogenic disorders?

Interactive activation models actually developed in large part from observing word retrieval breakdowns in individuals with aphasia. In general, observing symptoms of aphasia allows us to peek inside the workings of lexicon, and helps us understand how language processing works in the undamaged brain. Specifically, looking at word retrieval in this way has helped us think about anomia as a problem of activation—not enough activation, too much activation, activation that disappears too quickly, or doesn’t disappear quickly enough. Patterns of co-activation can explain how different types of errors might be produced in individuals with anomia. This approach has also suggested how certain therapy approaches might work. For example, Semantic Feature Analysis aims to improve word retrieval by activating a word’s semantic network (what category it is in, what other words are in that category, what it is used for, what it looks like, etc.). Activation of the semantic features or characteristics of a word should spread to the word itself, strengthening those connections and making it easier to retrieve. At the same time, semantically related words should also be activated and strengthened, which helps predict how improvements will generalize to other words.

What do we still not know about word retrieval that we hope to learn?

One complication for lexical modelling is that people’s mental lexicons are organized differently. For some people, tomatoes are fruits; for others, tomatoes are vegetables. (Some people think ketchup is a vegetable!) For some, the category of pets includes ferrets or snakes or bobcats (we argue about these things all the time in my lab). For some people, a stud finder is a common tool; others might have a very different interpretation of what it might be. Because of these differences, it is difficult for a model to account for individual patterns of word retrieval or word retrieval breakdown.

Another problem is that there is a fine line between activation that helps and activation that hinders word retrieval. A certain amount of spreading activation in the lexicon seems to help reinforce connections, but it can also create competition between a target word and related words. Clinicians know this—most have had the experience of trying to provide a helpful cue, but instead derailing the word retrieval attempt by cueing the wrong word.

How does the Language in Aging and Aphasia lab select new research projects

Usually one project leads to the next. The findings of a study always bring up more questions than it answers, but that’s what keeps the process interesting! Sometimes projects are sparked by student interests. My latest project, investigating fluency in aphasia, was actually inspired by my master’s students’ article reviews for class. In their assignments, they critiqued the literature for not providing a consistent way to measure fluency. This is something that has been acknowledged for decades, but as I was reading their critiques, I suddenly thought—they’re right! Why hasn’t the field addressed this issue? So we wrote a grant to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA) Foundation proposing to develop a better way of measuring fluency.

What aspect of your research are you most proud of?

That’s a moving target—I am always most fired up by whatever I am working on at the moment. It makes me happy when other professors tell me that they use an article of mine in class, because then I feel like I have accomplished something useful. But one thing that gives me a great deal of joy is when I can involve students in my projects, and get them interested in the issues. It is always satisfying to get a paper published, or a conference presentation accepted, but it is especially satisfying when a student has played a strong role in the project.

What is your advice for current SLP students?

Learn how to read the literature! ASHA has done a great job of promoting the importance of evidence-based practice, and this has filtered down to graduate programs over the past 10 years or so. There is so much knowledge out there, we cannot possibly teach our SLP students everything they need to know in less than 2 years. But if we can teach them the skills to be critical consumers of the literature, and encourage them to become lifelong learners, they will always be able to keep up with advances in the field.

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