Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Give Children a Reason to Learn New Words

Words are like wings, they can take you places.  The reason we acquire a new word is because we have an idea that the new word we are learning will help us get to some place new. 

In the most recent blog post of Child Psychology Research Blog, there was a post explaining current research regarding the use of Baby Einstien DVDs to help children learn vocabulary. I am not surprised to learn that children who watch these DVD's do not learn any more language than children who do not watch these DVDs.  I was surprised that watching the DVD's can, apparently depress vocabulary development.

In my work, I notice what words children learn and it is clear that if I want a particular child to learn a particular word, I need to show that child how that word will be useful.  The trick to teaching new vocabulary is setting up situations where the child 1) hears a word 2) sees how the word works 3) wants to use the word in order to accomplish the same end result and 4) has many opportunities to use that word and by using it, accomplish that same result. 
For example, I often use Hide and Find games to teach vocabulary.  I recently hid all the curved pieces of a train track and the little boy who knows and loves every single piece of that track was very interested when his dad said Where's curved track?  I showed Dad and his son where one piece was hidden.  After three or four rounds of Dad asking, the child was asking too. Note that this child was getting the track pieces even before he asked for one because his dad just handed tracks over to him as soon as each new piece was found.   Still, it was not long before the child asked Curved track? and took over finding the pieces on his own. He liked saying the words when he could see why one would say the words.

So, one game later, this little boy had learned a new word--curved.  Partly.  Curved will not really be a word in his vocabulary until he can ask for a curved versus a straight track piece because right now, he may think that curved is the tracks first name or something.  He thought it was called track before and now he thinks it is called curved track.   He might start to really know what the word curved means when he can ask his dad to drive home along the curved road rather than the straight road because he loves the curved country road, that takes him under a bridge that he likes.  Next week we will do some drawing and use the words curved and straight as we draw pictures together and that game will also help him understand the word.  Every time he learns a new thing that the word, curved can accomplish, the word will become more dear to him.  It is not what words mean that lodges them into our heads, it is what words can accomplish that lodges them into our heads.
Perhaps the reason that Baby Einstein DVDs depress vocabulary learning is because the DVD shows the baby that these sounds do not operate as words--they don't accomplish anything!  I don't learn useless words either.  I have listened to a beautiful CD of Turkish music at the same time that I exercise for over a year and never learned a single Turkish word--although I could because I have the translation and I can sort of sing along.  Who know--maybe my ability to learn Turkish has actually been depressed because I don't think of the words on that CD as words even--just pleasant background sound. Maybe babies come to think of the words on Baby Einstein DVDs as pleasant background sound.  The take home message is that if you want a child to learn new words, show the child how useful the words will be.


Child Psychology Research Blog 

Photograph was taken by Serene Bushey in Portugal

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