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Pregnancy & Parenting > parenting

Your Toddler Understands More Than You Think

By Vera Sizensky

Created: 09/24/2014
Last Updated: 09/24/2014

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I knew my daughter was smart. Just not this smart. Turns out the average tot learns an average of two to five new words every day. And, according to a new study led by University of Missouri researcher Judith Goodman, we can encourage our children's language development further by altering our teaching methods as they grow. 

During the study, researchers sat down with children ranging in age from 18 to 36 months and taught them six new words using three types of cues. These cues were presented either alone or in pairs, and the sessions were recorded so that researchers could later examine each child's ability to guess the meaning of a new word.

"When children were presented with a new word and asked to choose between an item for which they already had a name and an unfamiliar object, they appropriately assigned the new word to the unfamiliar object, and this ability improved as children aged," said Goodman, who is both an associate professor in the MU School of Health Professions and chair of the Department of Communication Science and Disorders. "The toddlers' ability to infer a word's meaning from linguistic context, such as figuring out that a 'kiwi' must be a food item when they hear, ‘Sammy eats the kiwi,' also improved as the children aged. However, using social cues, such as eye gaze, became less effective as the children matured. By 36 months of age, children were less likely to assume a word referred to the particular object a speaker was looking at—looking at a kiwi when teaching the child the word 'kiwi'—than younger children were."

So what does all this mean? Goodman says these findings could help parents boost their kids' vocabularies as well as help speech-language therapists develop interventions to help those with language delays. Kids who are struggling to master new words may actually benefit from the types of cues we give them.

"When you're working with young children who are learning language, it's important to talk to them all the time and label everything in their environments," Goodman said. "At home, parents can name household items or foods the children are eating. If out on an excursion, such as a trip to the zoo, parents can label the animals they see."

Time to break out the label maker for my little genius! She's 13 months old and knows what the doggy says! Check it out in this video (so proud!). 

Follow Vera on Twitter @VeraSiz.

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