Parents, please note! Making use of visual clues may be an effective way to help your kids learn new words.
By using words to reference objects in the visual environment can make a big difference in how deep children's vocabularies are when they enter school, according to the research by the University of Chicago.
The study also explores the difficult-to-measure quality of non-verbal clues to word meaning during interactions between parents and children learning to speak.
For example, saying, "There goes the zebra" while visiting the zoo helps a child learn the word "zebra" faster than saying, "Let's go to see the zebra."
Differences in the quality of parents' non-verbal clues to toddlers explain about a quarter (22 per cent) of the differences in those same children's vocabularies when they enter kindergarten, researchers found.
"What was surprising in this study was that social economic status did not have an impact on quality. Parents of lower social economic status were just as likely to provide high-quality experiences for their children as were parents of higher status," said co-author Susan Goldin-Meadow.
Although scholars have amassed impressive evidence that the number of words children hear - the quantity of their linguistic input - has an impact on vocabulary development, measuring the quality of the verbal environment – including non-verbal clues to word meaning - has proved much more difficult.
To measure quality, the research team reviewed videotapes of everyday interactions between 50 primary caregivers, almost all mothers, and their children (14 to 18 months old).
The mothers and children, from a range of social and economic backgrounds, were taped for 90-minute periods as they went about their days, playing and engaging in other activities.
The team then showed 40-second vignettes from these videotapes to 218 adults with the sound track muted. Based on the interaction between the child and parent, the adults were asked to guess what word the parent in each vignette used when a beep was sounded on the tape.
The study also found that how much parents talk to their children (quantity), and how parents use words in relation to the non-verbal environment (quality) provided different kinds of input into early language development.
"However, parents who talk more are, by definition, offering their children more words, and the more words a child hears, the more likely it will be for that child to hear a particular word in a high-quality learning situation," they added.
The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.