By: Kyle Snow, Ph.D.
There’s new research on how infants learn language. Here’s why it’s important:
1. We already knew that vocabulary acquisition was important to children’s success in school.
2. This new research tells us that how children process words (vocabulary) is also important. Dr. Ann Fernald, a researcher at Stanford University, explains the concept of language processing in this video and describes the study in this video.
3. Teachers can learn from the new research and adapt how they speak to children.
4. Teachers can make sure to give children time to process instructions and additional time to respond.
5. Programs that reach children very early on (like home visiting services that educate parents on children’s language development) and early education programs can make a difference.
A recent New York Times story highlighted the latest findings from a series of research studies related to children’s language development during late infancy (18-24 months and older). Dr. Anne Fernald has long studied how infants learn language. Her latest findings reveal income-based differences in children’s vocabulary starting as early as 18-months. What’s exciting about this research is that it both confirms and extends what we already know about the potential impacts of living in poverty on children's language development. And the more we know, the more we can positively impact children.
The new research adds to a growing body of work that identifies income-based disparities long before children enter school. In her work, Fernald found differences in vocabulary as early as 18-months of age, with a large vocabulary gap emerging by the time children reach 2-years. These results amplify the results from analysis of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth cohort, reported by Child Trends, which found disparities in general cognitive functioning as early as 9-months of age.
Vocabulary – Size and Speed Matter
Fernald’s research extends our current understanding by not just looking at the size of children’s vocabulary, but how children process words in their vocabulary. Consider what it takes to use vocabulary – a series of words is heard, their meaning is interpreted, and then some response (maybe none) is produced. “Everyone come here and each take a cookie” requires some pretty good vocabulary skills. Each child needs to figure out what the words mean, and then process what they mean within the rest of the sentence. Speed of processing is important because a child’s working memory (think of this as the mental space that is currently used to guide activity) is limited in size and duration – if a child spends too much energy and time trying to figure out what a single word means, he or she will not have as many resources to act on that information, and in this case, miss out on a cookie. While we have begun to recognize that the size of children’s vocabularies may differ based upon their family’s incomes, Dr. Fernald’s study is the first that I know of that looked explicitly at processing language. The resulting knowledge – not only do children from lower income homes tend to have smaller vocabularies as early as 18-months, they also process language less quickly than their peers from higher-income homes. The differences are so pronounced that at 24-months of age, children from low-income homes are processing language at same speed as children from higher-income homes could when they were 18-months old.
What does this mean for young children?
As summarized by Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child, early experience affects brain development and lays the foundation for children’s development. We know from a wide range of research that disparities in children’s development and learning related to living in poverty persist and sometimes grow larger over time. This is especially true when there is no change in the nature of children’s experiences. In a recent paper, Drs. Clancy Blair and Cybele Raver concluded that “Poverty presents a remediable rather than a static set of environmental conditions that must be borne by families and children.” In other words, we can change the nature of children’s experiences. Programs like home visiting for new parents can affect the child’s language experience at home. Access to high quality early care and education outside of the home can extend the opportunities for children to learn and develop. Dr. Fernald’s findings that important disparities are present as young as 18-months underscores the need for high quality programming to be available as early as possible - before pre-kindergarten programs which generally begin at age 3.
The research tells us that by waiting to act until children are 4-years old, we have wasted precious time in closing known, predictable gaps in children’s learning and development. We also would have ignored the arguments of Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman, who has argued that investments made earlier carry the greatest return on investment (see also this summary).
For teachers working with young children, these findings suggest the need to provide vocabulary-rich experiences for all children. It also means recognizing that children differ in how quickly they can act on instructions or respond to questions. While the differences in processing speed reported in the research are fractions of a second, even these small differences can be important. They suggest using language in ways that allow for children to completely process words and ideas before moving on to new words and ideas. Use short sentences. Also allow all children time to respond. Some of this may be habit – not calling on the first child to respond, for example. But considering that differences in how quickly children react may be due in part of differences in how they process language may provide new insight into their learning and behavior.
Learn More with these Additional Resources:
Author Q&A with Mary Benson McMullen, one of the editors of Developmentally Appropriate Practice: Focus on Infants and Toddlers – November 4-8
Research on Children’s Language Experiences:
The Early Catastrophe: The 30 million Word Gap by Age 3: The ground-breaking findings from the Hart and Risley study in 2003 underscored the different language experiences children have based upon whether their families lived in poverty or above the poverty line. Their work was largely considered to have importance in describing the differences in children’s language experience when they entered school.