Young children make more mistakes learning new words than parents expect

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Learning new words is not always as easy for young children as parents may think, according to the results of a new study.

Research carried out by the Kent Child Development Unit at the University of Kent has found that five-year-olds often make mistakes when they are learning new words for actions.

Kirsten Abbot-Smith, a lecturer in developmental psychology who led the research, said the findings were surprising. 'We know from other studies that by the age of two, children can use the order of words and word endings, such as "ing", to help work out the meanings of new words for actions, at least when the objects involved are familiar.'

Around 100 five-year-olds were split into four study groups to examine the mechanisms children use to learn words. A researcher described a film clip to the children using a made-up phrase such as 'she is blicking it', making it clear that 'blicking' referred to the action, not the object, for example a woman headbutting a bamboo candle holder on to a table.

Children were then shown two different clips and asked to choose which one showed the correct meaning of 'blicking'.

One of the film pairs showed a different unfamiliar action - for example, the action was 'hurling' and not 'headbutting' - while another showed a different unfamiliar object, for example a CD rack and not a candle holder.

Dr Abbot-Smith said, 'From their responses we know the children were guessing at the meaning of "blicking", because half the time they chose the wrong clip. This could be because they thought blicking referred to the object, such as the candle holder, or it could be because they forgot the original action.'

However, children chose the correct meaning of 'blicking' when the action did not involve moving an object from one place to another but involved a repetitive action, such as a woman rolling the candle holder between her hands.

While most adults would automatically assume that in a phrase, 'blicking' refers to the action, not the object, children's ability to learn that 'blicking' referred to the action was affected by the type of action in the clip.

But five-year-olds performed well in another study using different actions, perhaps because the actions were not as quick and one-off, Dr Abbot-Smith said.

'We suspect that pre-school children may forget the specific details of some type of actions very quickly. Now we need to look at how much forgetting actually goes on.'

Further information

Dr Abbot-Smith is looking for two to six-year-olds to take part in the study. Visit www.kent.ac.k/psychology/childdevelopmentunit or e-mail child@kent.ac.uk or call (01227) 827424

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