fish gameI sit in the living room watching my husband playing with my son. It’s the fishing game, with a number of different coloured fish and a magnetic fishing rod. “Blue! Get the blue one! No, that’s white. This one’s the blue one!” Click. “Yes. Blue. A blue fish!”

We have played this game a hundred times- my son loves the colours, the simple action, the easy success. It might drive me mad, but for him it’s wonderful! And it’s a great way to learn, as the instructions are simple and repetitive, and the vocabulary is useful and visually clear. It’s the same with books, songs and television shows geared towards the youngest of learners- lots of repetitive actions, sounds and colours for them to learn to associate with.

In reality, as every child knows, the business of helping pre-school children learn their first words is surprisingly simple – repetition and familiarity. A favourite book read over and over again trumps the mini-library of children’s books found in some households. As the saying goes, less is more.

Psychologist Jessica Horst, from Sussex University, conducted an experiment in which three-year-olds were tested to see if they would recognise and recall six new words. Some children were given more books to read, and some only one. The results at the end of a week of reading showed that the children with only one book to read were able to retain the new words better than those who had read different stories.

After hearing her favourite book many times, your toddler may even remember it well enough to add the endings to some of the sentences. Once your toddler knows the ending to a story, she’s able to pay more attention to the story next time you read it to her. Repetition is your toddler’s way of reminding herself of what she knows. She enjoys the excitement of getting it right each time. Repetition in a variety of forms also increases the likelihood of reaching children with different learning styles and provides a more comprehensive understanding of concepts.

How does the brain learn new words? The first time a baby hears or reads a word, his brain decides not to put it in his long term memory of active vocabulary, because it decides carefully what is relevant to him and what he does or does not have to remember. His brain does this very successfully since he is a baby. That’s how we learn our mother tongue from our parents, relatives, friends, class mates, etc. To store a word or phrase in our long term memory of active vocabulary, it has to be repeatedly seen, heard, or read.

Much research has been done into this, and Joe Barcroft (Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition: A Lexical Input Processing Approach, 2008) outlined it in 5 points:

  1. Present new words frequently and repeatedly in input.
    The more frequently language learners are exposed to foreign vocabulary; the more likely they are to remember it. Studies suggest that most learners need between 5-16 ‘meetings’ with a word in order to retain it, which means going back to the same pictures, songs and books is essential.
  2. Use clear and graspable language when teaching new words.
    In order for learners to successfully make the association between a foreign language word and its meaning, that meaning must be conveyed in a manner that is easy to understand. One method for making foreign terms comprehensible and thus promoting vocabulary learning is to present each word in a variety of ways. Using pictures and picture books, or even more of a show and tell when you are in the park for example, helps children associate words with the actual object.
  3. Don’t push your young child to speak before he or she is ready. Forcing children to rush into word production and sentence formation can interfere with vocabulary learning during the beginning stages of acquiring a language. Instead, give them time to absorb the meanings of individual words at their own pace before being asked to use them. Children who are given that time are far more likely to use the words correctly when they do choose to form sentences.
  4. Keep the focus on just one thing at a time. 
    Children get distracted and confused very easily, and this is especially with new language. When you are looking at a new book with your child, keep the words you use to a minimum, so that he can understand easily what he is seeing. If you show him a picture of a cow, and say “Look, Nathan, a cow, a big brown cow with a lovely long tail. Moo, moo.” he won’t be sure which of the words you have used is the one he needs to describe what he sees. Is “moo” the word for “cow”?
  5. Progress from easier to more demanding vocabulary-related activities.
    Vocabulary learning is most effective when children start off with a small group of words, then gradually add more terms as the first ones are mastered. This is logical- they need time to process every word and learn to store it, so as the research by Jessica Horst (above) showed, repetition of a few words first, and then more words brought in at a later date will have the best results.

Encourage your child’s language skills by making time every day to read and play with him/ her. Whatever the activity, be it a game, baking a cake, or doing the gardening, use the same words again and again. Use different voices to tell stories and encourage your toddler to join in with you as much as possible. The more the better- they will love you for it, and their language skills will grow rapidly.