Best Way for Toddlers to Learn New Words Is ...

When it comes to learning words, a hands-off approach may be in order. New research suggests toddlers pick up words better when they figure out their meanings rather than being told.

Kids have a hard time learning when they are given too much information, but sometimes having a bit of context makes things easier. When children come across vocabulary for things they don't know, they use what they already know to infer what a new word might signify. Researchers found that toddlers retained new words better when they had to compare a known word and a new word than when simply given the meaning of a new word, according to a study published Jan. 23 in the journal Applied Developmental Science.

"One of the big questions that adults have is how kids learn new words," lead study author Jennifer Zosh, a developmental psychologist at Penn State Brandywine, told LiveScience. "What I was really interested in are the circumstances in which kids learn new words better."

Zosh and her colleagues studied 48 children ages 3 to 3 1/2 whose primary language was English. The children were shown pictures of familiar and unfamiliar objects on a screen, and learned new, made-up names for the unfamiliar objects either by instruction or by inference.

During instruction periods, a child was shown only the unknown object and told what it was called. During inference periods, the child was shown a known object and an unknown one and told to point to the unknown object (called by its new name). In this case, the child had to use their prior knowledge of one object to determine what the unknown word referred to. [That's Incredible! 9 Brainy Baby Abilities]

Then the scientists tested the children's memory of the new words and objects. Real versions of four of the six new objects were presented to the kids, and the researchers tested the kids' recall by asking them to point to the objects by name. The experimenters also measured the amount of time the children spent looking at each object.

What they found was that the toddlers' vocabulary recall was better for the words learned by inference instead of direct instruction, even though they spent a longer time looking at the new object during instruction trials. In other words, when children had to figure out new words for themselves, they showed better retention, Zosh said.

The findings aren't totally unsurprising to developmental psychologist Jessica Horst of the University of Sussex in England, who was not involved in the study. "When children are learning words and categories, it's important not only to learn what something is, but what it is not," Horst told LiveScience.

For example, imagine you have a perfectly clean coffee table with a remote control on it, and you tell a child to bring you the remote. The child doesn't need to learn what the remote is called, because it's the only thing on the table. But if the table contains other familiar items, the child will learn which one is the remote by process of elimination.

Of course, having too many distractions can make it hard to learn new words, as previous studies have shown. "Finding the sweet spot is a challenge," Zosh said. You need enough challenge to keep kids engaged and interested, she said, but not so much that it's too difficult.

The results of the study don't mean that kids can only learn new objects by inference, Zosh said. But they may be more engaged when it's more of a game. Zosh plans to do a follow-up study on younger children, who might find learning by inference more of a challenge.

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Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.