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Building toddlers’ vocabularies

boy on phoneA study last year at the University of Missouri-Columbia (MU) revealed new information about how toddlers add to their vocabularies.

Looking to expand on previous studies demonstrating that at 18 months, children typically learn two to five new words per day, MU researchers studied the ability of children aged 18-36 months to master the meanings of new words.

“We found that babies’ abilities to accurately guess the meaning of new words increases between 18 and 30 months of age, and by 24 to 36 months, toddlers are able to accurately guess the meanings of new words at a significantly higher level,” said Judith Goodman, chair of the Department of Communication Science and Disorders at MU.

The study showed also that between the ages of 18 and 30 months, there is a change in the cues upon which toddlers rely to learn new words.

“When children were presented with a new word and asked to choose between an item for which they already had a name and an unfamiliar object, they appropriately assigned the new words to the unfamiliar object, and this ability improved as children aged,” Goodman said. “The toddlers’ ability to infer a word’s meaning from a linguistic context, such as figuring out that a ‘kiwi’ must be a food item when they hear, ‘Sammy eats the kiwi,’ also improved as the children aged.”

Conversely, as toddlers got a little older, they were less likely to rely on social cues to infer the meaning of new words.

“When you’re working with young children who are learning language, it’s important to talk to them all the time and label everything in their environments,” Goodman said. “At home, parents can name household items or foods the children are eating. If out on an excursion, such as a trip to the zoo, parents can label the animals they see.”

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