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Show AND Tell: How Toddlers Learn New Words Best

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Development & Learning

It just makes sense: kids who have large, rich vocabularies when they start kindergarten do better in school than kids who do not. In order to read words, for example, a child has to know words and be able to use them. So teaching children a large number of words during the preschool years is a smart move for parents to make.

Research has long backed this up. Studies have compared the number of words two-year-olds hear per hour and have come up with vast differences from child to child and family to family. In general, parents who have more education and more free time to spend with their children use more words in talking with them. These same studies have demonstrated that two-year-olds who hear few words per hour are less ready for kindergarten when they turn five than children who hear more.

Now a new study adds a new wrinkle. According to a paper from the University of Chicago, it’s not only the number of words parents use in talking with their children that makes a difference. It’s also the non-verbal cues – like showing or pointing – that helps children understand. Researchers found that nearly a quarter of the vocabulary growth preschoolers experience is determined by parents’ use of non-verbal cues.

For example, saying “Look at that zebra!” while pointing to the animal helps a child learn the word “zebra” more quickly than just saying, “Let’s go see the zebra.”

Another finding from this study was that a family’s wealth or poverty was not a deciding factor in children’s ability to learn to talk. What mattered was simply the number of words heard and parents’ use of pointing and showing to help children understand. But there were large difference there. Some parents provided non-verbal cues only 5% of the time while other parents provided cues 38% of the time

Of course, parents want their children to do well in school. But school success starts early, in the simple things moms and dads do with kids who are only two or three or four. Here are some ideas:

  1. Take time to carry on conversations. The more you and your child talk together, the smarter she becomes. For some parents, it seems silly to talk about the weather to a toddler. But once you make a habit of talking about anything and everything, your child will start to respond back.
  2. Take time to listen to your child. The way to know what words your child knows is to hear him use them in his own speech. To use words, a child has to have a kindly listener. Even though it sometimes takes kids a long time to say what they want to say, try your best to give them the time. Remember they’re new at this.
  3. When you talk, try to show what you mean. You can point to things, or pick them up. You can demonstrate words like “under” and “beside.” You can say something like, “I’m going to share my cookie with you,” emphasizing the word “share” as you break the cookie in two and give the child a portion.
  4. Remember that talking with your child costs nothing. No matter how advantaged or unadvantaged you feel your family is, you can start your child on the path to success just by talking with him. Conversation levels the playing field.

Being able to use a lot of different words is so important to children’s development. Show and tell your child what’s going on in her world, as much as you can.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.