Why Some Children May Be Slower to Learn Words

Summary: Children with larger vocabularies look directly and quickly toward an object when learning new words, while those with smaller vocabularies look back and forth between objects and have a slower response time.

Source: University of East Anglia

New research from the University of East Anglia reveals why some children may be slower to learn words than others.

A study published today investigates where toddlers look when they learn new words. It finds that children with larger vocabularies looked quickly towards objects when learning new words.

Meanwhile, children who knew fewer words looked back and forth between objects and took more time.

The research team say that their findings could help identify children with delays in language development at an earlier stage.

Importantly, it means these children could be given earlier support to build their best vocabulary before starting school.

Lead researcher Dr Larissa Samuelson, from UEA’s School of Psychology, said: “At around two years of age, children start to be quicker to decide what a new word means. We think this is because many of the first words children learn are names for sets of things that are similar in shape – balls are round, cups are cup-shaped.

“Children learn that if you hear a new word, other objects that are the same shape can also most likely be called by this name.

“This helps them learn new words quickly because they have an idea what a new word means right away.

“But there may be differences in the way that children who struggle with language learn new words and understand what new words mean.

“We wanted to better understand this phenomenon to see how it could support early word learning.”

The research team studied how 66 children aged between 17 and 31 months learn new words in a simple game.

They showed the toddlers new objects made from clay, plaster, Styrofoam, yarn and plastic mesh. The researchers then told the children the names of the new objects and asked them what other things can also be called by that name.

Crucially, the team filmed where the children were looking throughout the task. They were then able to watch it back frame-by-frame to see where the toddlers were looking before and after they were presented with a new object.

“We know that when adults and children hear a word they know, they look towards things in the world that match the words they hear. We wanted to see if this was different depending on how many words you know,” said Dr Samuelson.

So the researchers also asked parents how many words their children can say.

Dr Samuelson said: “We found that children who can say more words quickly looked towards objects that were the same shape as a named object. Children who knew fewer words looked back and forth between the objects and took more time.

This shows building blocks spelling out the word play
Meanwhile, children who knew fewer words looked back and forth between objects and took more time. Image is in the public domain

“Other research has shown that children with Developmental Language Disorder do not pay attention to the same things when learning new words as children with typical language development.

“At the moment you can’t diagnose children with Developmental Language Disorder until they are three or four. But we hope that our findings could help determine which children are at risk for language delay at an earlier stage so that they can get better support.

“Our research has previously shown that we can boost word learning in children by helping them learn what to pay attention to when they hear a new word.

“If we can figure out which children need this support earlier, we can help them build their best vocabulary and be more ready to enter school with the language skills they need.”

This research was led by the University of East Anglia in collaboration with Augustana College, Illinois (US) and Durham University.

‘Vocabulary and automatic attention: The relation between novel words and gaze dynamics in noun generalization’ is published in the journal Developmental Science.

About this language and child development research news

Author: Lisa Horton
Source: University of East Anglia
Contact: Lisa Horton – University of East Anglia
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Vocabulary and automatic attention: The relation between novel words and gaze dynamics in noun generalization” by Larissa Samuelson et al. Developmental Science


Vocabulary and automatic attention: The relation between novel words and gaze dynamics in noun generalization

Words direct visual attention in infants, children, and adults, presumably by activating representations of referents that then direct attention to matching stimuli in the visual scene. Novel, unknown, words have also been shown to direct attention, likely via the activation of more general representations of naming events.

To examine the critical issue of how novel words and visual attention interact to support word learning we coded frame-by-frame the gaze of 17- to 31-month-old children (n = 66, 38 females) while generalizing novel nouns. We replicate prior findings of more attention to shape when generalizing novel nouns, and a relation to vocabulary development.

However, we also find that following a naming event, children who produce fewer nouns take longer to look at the objects they eventually select and make more transitions between objects before making a generalization decision.

Children who produce more nouns look to the objects they eventually select more quickly following the naming event and make fewer looking transitions.

We discuss these findings in the context of prior proposals regarding children’s few-shot category learning, and a developmental cascade of multiple perceptual, cognitive, and word-learning processes that may operate in cases of both typical development and language delay.

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