Early years practitioners are
well aware that a lan-
helps children through the
early stages of language
development, from identi-
fying words in speech to using them
in sentences. But here, we look more
closely at how children learn words,
particularly names for objects, and
how they use their environment to
guide this process.
Helping children to learn words at
an early age is incredibly important,
because the number of words that a
toddler knows predicts how well they
will learn to read when they get to
school1. However, word learning is
enormously complicated, and there
are two primary reasons for this.
First, children need to understand
that some of the sounds that grown-
ups make actually relate to things
around them. For example, when we
hear a lion roaring, we tend not to
assume that the lion is telling us any-
thing – what it had for dinner, for
example. But children have to ﬁgure
out that human speech is completely
different from other sounds they hear,
because it carries meaning.
The second reason that word learn-
ing is hard is because children have to
link new words to their meaning, and
there are many ways these links could
be made. When someone says, ‘Look,
a rabbit’ as a rabbit runs past, chil-
dren cannot know for certain how
this phrase relates to what they see –
it could be to the rabbit itself, but it
could also be the rabbit’s fur, the run-
ning motion, the beauty of the scene,
or other aspects of the environment.
Fortunately, though, young chil-
dren are extremely sophisticated
word learners. By age two, children
have started to learn the meaning of a
word after hearing it only a few
times2. Children can even learn
meanings without being explicitly
told them, if they already know the
names of other objects that are
around at the same time3.
So, what is known about how chil-
dren learn the meanings of words,
How well children learn words is inﬂuenced by many things, including the environment and the
manner in which adults speak to them. Communication experts Dr Rebecca Frost, Dr Katherine
Twomey, Dr Gemma Taylor, Professor Gert Westermann and Professor Padraic Monaghan explain
LEarning & DEVELOPMEnT COMMuniCaTiOn & LanguagE
Word for word
27 JULY-9 AUGUST 2015 NURSERY WORLD 21
PHOTOS AT ARCHWAY CHILDREN’S CENTRE, LONDON, BY JUSTIN THOMAS
Labelling an object
attention to it helps
children retain the
name of that item
22 NURSERY WORLD 27 JULY-9 AUGUST 2015 WWW.NURSERYWORLD.CO.UK
LEarning & DEVELOPMEnT COMMuniCaTiOn & LanguagE
WWW.NURSERYWORLD.CO.UK 27 JULY-9 AUGUST 2015 NURSERY WORLD 23
and how can we help children to
learn more effectively?
WHAT INFLUENCES WORD
You may not be surprised to hear that
attention plays an important role in
word learning. Explicitly labelling an
object while drawing children’s atten-
tion to it helps them to learn and
retain names for objects that they
haven’t seen before4.
Using words and objects together
is thought to be particularly helpful
for early language development, from
around six to 18 months5. At this very
early stage of language development,
engaging children’s interest, showing
them objects and letting them explore
objects for themselves are all great
ways of helping them to get started in
As children get older and begin
exploring for themselves, it becomes
increasingly challenging for us to talk
about what they are looking at when
they are looking at it. Fortunately,
toddlers are very good at learning
words by using whatever information
For example, children can learn
words for objects that have been
moved out of view7, such as toys in a
toy box. They are also keen listeners
– research has shown that children
can learn words for new objects from
conversations between adults, with-
out actually being part of the conver-
Because children need to learn to
link words with objects, it makes
sense that language learning is boos-
ted when the pairings between words
and objects are more apparent. If we
take the example of the rabbit given
earlier, children can’t be sure what a
rabbit is after just one instance of
hearing the word. But if every time
they hear ‘rabbit’ they also see a rab-
bit, then they can increase their conﬁ-
dence about the word’s meaning.
Learning is not quite so effective if
there are lots of other objects around
too – it is easier for children to link a
word to an object if there are only a
few objects for them to look at9.
Research has shown that gesturing
while speaking10 and promoting chil-
dren’s pointing and gaze-following
could all be helpful for language
learning11. Emphasising the key word
that we want children to learn seems
to improve learning too12.
So, what else can we do to help
children learn word meanings?
HOW CAN WE HELP
What children hear
There are lots of ways that we can
help children’s language learning,
starting with how we communicate
with them, and how often we do so.
Most adults speak to children in a
different way than they speak to other
adults. Drawn-out words, spoken at a
higher pitch and with exaggerated
pronunciation are the hallmarks of
child-directed speech. But is talking
to young children in this way helpful
for word learning? The evidence
seems to say it is.
Child-di rec ted speech c aptures
infants’ attention more than adult-
directed speech. At two days old,
infants are already showing a prefer-
ence for hearing child-directed over
adult-directed speech13. The more
distinct speech sounds used in child-
directed speech seem to help infants
to pick up the different sounds that
make up words14, and research has
shown that infants can learn words
better from this type of speech15.
It is not just the way we speak to
children that affects their learning.
Research has shown that children
who receive a large amount of lan-
guage exposure are able to learn more
words than those who only receive a
limited amount, and they can acquire
words more quickly than their less
Although talking to children often
will help word learning, it isn’t quite
enough to just use a large quantity of
words – the quality of speech that
children hear is important too. Word
learning can be boosted by exposing
children to a large and varied vocabu-
lary that includes words that we as
adults might use less frequently16.
Interestingly, research has shown
that children beneﬁt more from hear-
ing full grammatically correct sen-
tences17, rather than simpler phrases
or single words. Using full sentences
helps children know which are the
key words, and helps them under-
stand what these words refer to18.
Repetition is also advantageous
for word learning. This is good news,
as children love hearing the same
story or joke repeated over and over
again – even if adults sometimes ﬁnd
it rather tedious. We use far more rep-
etition when talking to children than
we do with adults, and at birth,
infants can already identify repeti-
tions of words19. Research has shown
that repetition can help toddlers learn
names for new objects20, even when
the names are words they have never
Repeated reading of storybooks is
helpful for learning, as it means that
children can predict the language
patterns in the stories, which helps
them to pull out new information.
A recent study showed that chil-
dren who heard the same storybook
multiple times were much better at
recalling the new words that the story
contained a week later than their
peers who heard several different sto-
ries21. However, when storybooks
contain lots of features such as pull-
tabs and pop-ups, children are less
able to generalise the new words to
other examples of the same thing22.
What children see
There are lots of other ways we can
support word learning that focus on
what children see, as well as what
they hear. In particular, letting chil-
dre n com pare obj ects helps them
learn which features of those objects
For example, a cup at nursery
could be made from yellow plastic, a
cup at home could be made from red
metal, and a cup at Grandma’s could
We know that the amount of language children are exposed to is
important, but do media sources such as television count as helpful
language input? Studies have shown mixed results, reporting negative,
neutral and positive links between television exposure and language
When learning from television, children must transfer what they
learn to the real world28. As a result, something researchers refer to
as ‘scaolding’ is required to enable children to learn language from
television. When parents interact with children about the relationship
between objects on the television screen and real-world objects,
children can learn language from television29. When viewed passively,
however, television may not be a beneﬁcial source of language input.
WHAT ABOUT MEDIA INPUT?
be made from blue china. However,
all of them are a similar shape, and all
are used for drinking. By comparing
the different examples, children learn
that to work out whether something
is a cup, they must look at its shape
and what it does, but can ignore its
colour and what it is made from24.
Showing children lots of examples
in this way makes it easier for them to
learn the word for that category of
A recent study even showed that
giving 18-month-olds extra experi-
ence with categories of objects and
their names not only helped them
learn a particular category name, but
substantially hastened their general
We can also help children learn by
thinking about the context in which
they see an object and hear a new
word. For example, it is more difﬁcult
for children to work out which object
a new word refers to if there are lots
of new objects, rather than just a few.
Although letting children compare
things helps them learn words, stud-
ies show that too much comparison
makes learning more difﬁcult9.
We also know that children can
work out what a new word refers to
by ruling out things they already
know the names for27.
So, keeping playtime relatively
simple, for example playing with one
new and two familiar toys rather than
two new and six familiar toys, can
make it easier for children to learn
Children are experts when it comes to
word learning. They can learn from
all sorts of information around them,
even when there isn’t much there to
Nevertheless, what children see
and what they hear are both critically
important for language development,
and this is something we should
always keep in mind when communi-
cating with them. n
Dr Rebecca Frost, Dr Katherine
Twomey, Dr Gemma Taylor,
Professor Gert Westermann and
Professor Padraic Monaghan
are based at Lancaster University,
supported by the ESRC International
Centre for Language and
(LuCiD). Find out more about the
work done by LuCiD’s at www.
Here are some suggestions,
based on the research described
in this article, that may help
along children’s word learning:
l Talk to children often, and use
a large and varied vocabulary.
l Encourage interactive
l Read storybooks – this is a
great way to provide children
with much-needed language
exposure. Re-reading them
will help children to pull out
l Use words and objects
l Give children practice at
pointing at things they and
you are talking about.
l Guide children in following the
direction of your gaze.
l Interact with children while
they watch television to
support their learning.
l Keep playtime relatively
simple by playing with a
smaller mix of new and
TIPS FOR LANGUAGE
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Plunkett, K, & Nation, K
2. Childers, JB &
Tomasello, M (2002).
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4. Axelsson, EL,
Churchley, K, & Horst,
5. Althaus, N, &
Plunkett, K (2015).
6. Smith, LB, Yu, C, &
Pereira, AF (2011).
7. Samuelson, LK,
Smith, LB, Perry, LK, &
Spencer, JP (2011).
8. Akhtar, N (2005).
9. Horst, JS, Scott, EJ &
Pollard, JA (2010).
10. Goodwyn, SW,
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11. 1 Brooks, R &
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& Saran, JR (2005).
16. Hart, B & Risley, T
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18. Monaghan, P &
Mattock, K (2012).
19. Gervain, J, Berent, I &
Werker, JF (2012).
20. Mather, E &
Plunkett, K (2009).
21. Horst, JS, Parsons,
KL & Bryan, NM (2011).
22. Tare, M, Chiong, C,
Ganea, P & DeLoache, J
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24. Smith, LB, Jones,
SS, Landau, B,
Gershko-Stowe, L, &
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l Full list of complete
25-29) at www.
Repeated reading of
children to predict
language patterns in
the stories and so pull
out new information