Use Your Full Vocabulary With Kids—They’ll Learn More That Way

Many of us with young kids consciously limit the vocabulary we use with them, wanting to make sure that they’ll understand what we’re saying without having to struggle with an unfamiliar word. But a new study suggests that using as wide and rich a variety of words as possible is actually the more helpful approach, reports Dian Schaffhauser in T.H.E. Journal:

“Exposure to word variation for early readers may boost their abilities, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Iowa to be published in the January issue of Developmental Psychology.

To test out the hypothesis, the researchers used an online program in which word tasks are frequently changed so that the student is continually exposed to new things to learn.

Researchers Keith Apfelbaum, Bob McMurray and Eliot Hazeltine worked with 224 first-grade students in the West Des Moines Community Schools system. Some students learned words organized by traditional phonics instruction, which uses similar word sets to help illustrate the rules, the idea being to simplify the school work for learners. A second group of students used the program that pulls together sets of words with variation, appearing to make the lesson more difficult.

After a few days, all of the students were tested to see if they could read words they’d never seen before, read made-up words, and apply their new skills to work they hadn’t done before.

The research team said the results surprised even them. Those students experiencing more variation in words showed better learning. More importantly, the researchers concluded, variation helped students apply their skills to new words and tasks.

‘Variability was good for the low-performing students; it was good for the high-performing students. It was good for the boys; it was good for the girls. It was good for the words; it was good for the non-words,’ said Apfelbaum.

‘In no case was similarity more helpful than variability,’ added McMurray. ‘This suggests a powerful principle of learning.’” (Read more here.)

So use as rich and complex a vocabulary as you can with children—explaining meanings in the moment when necessary. This is how vocabulary is acquired: not through memorizing lists of words, but by repeatedly encountering unfamiliar words in context. (I think I borrowed that last phrase from Robert Pondiscio—thanks, Robert!)

4 Responses to “Use Your Full Vocabulary With Kids—They’ll Learn More That Way”

  1. Interesting article, thanks!

    I do think it pays to be careful with these ‘study to be published’ style press releases, would love to read the full paper. Also, this is first-grade students, who are at a stage of their brains being like sponges for vocabulary – would be interesting to see if this effect exists as strongly in older children, who may learn differently.

    Definitely puts a big question mark over the thinking behind many (most) phonics schemes though.

  2. Shawn says:

    I’ve seen this in all 5 of my children and in countless classrooms I’ve taught.
    My own children, at two or three would get double takes from others as they spoke. People aren’t used to toddlers saying things like, “May I have an apple? Actually no, I’d prefer a banana.”
    Obviously, baby talk was not a part of my children’s language acquisition.
    My 5 yr old asked me to ‘build a big lego car like you did last week, dad.”
    I said, “I don’t think I can. I don’t remember how we did it.”
    An emphatic, “Yes you do! It’s in your schema! It’s in your brain!” burst forth.
    Kids get it. We don’t give them enough credit.

  3. trekindo says:

    I completely agree with this article.
    Sometimes I think we limit what we think our kids can absorb – and kids love to experiment with complex language. I have been in the past blown away by kids articulating the IB Learner Profile, the Essential Qualities and now the “Building Learning Power Dispositions.
    if I can sit in a meeting and hear a mother quote a grade 2 students explanation and personal reflectiveness and skills with regard to “Building Learning Power” Dispositions and what she needs to focus upon, I’d have to agree that given that we are able to supply contextually graspable examples which they can align and internalise, young students are able to use academically correct language – and having been developed over time, some of this language has specifics and nuances that is lost when we try to simplify it into “child” language. I think it is in here the room for misconceptions grow which are very very hard to unlearn.

    After all – if kids can say Tyrannosaurus Rex and understand extinction – surely with specific teaching and consistency we should not be fearful of complex precise language.

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