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Learning Words by Inference More Powerful for Toddlers

Toddlers learn new words more easily when they figure out the words' meaning for themselves, research by a US study seems to suggest.//

Meredith Brinster, an undergraduate student in the John Hopkins University and who did the study, says she has found that learning words by inference is more powerful for 3-year-olds than just being told their meaning.

"One of the things that is particularly exciting about the work Meredith is doing is its potential to change the way we think about education and learning," said Justin Halberda, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins.

Brinster's work was funded by a Johns Hopkins Provost's Undergraduate Research Award . She will present the results of her research at an awards ceremony held at Johns Hopkins on March 8.

Interested in how very young children learn to attach the names of objects to the objects themselves, Brinster, 22, of Medford, N.J., designed a study to measure which word-learning strategy was more effective: direct instruction, in which an adult "directly" points to and names an unfamiliar object, or inference, in which toddlers use reason (such as process of elimination) to mentally "fasten" an unfamiliar word to an unfamiliar object.

Based on previous research, Brinster posited that the young children would learn words more quickly via inference.

According to her preliminary results, she was correct.

"We found that our hypothesis was true, and that inference is better than instruction," said Brinster, a psychology major.

Over the summer, Brinster worked with 100 children, ages 36 to 42 months, who came to the Laboratory for Child Development on the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus. One trial tested how well children learned words through inference, and the other how well they learned through direct instruction.

During the inference trial, Brinster showed the youngsters both famili ar and strange objects (for instance, a ball and a plumber's 'T' connector).

After saying a nonsense word (blicket for instance), she would ask them to either point to or grab the "matching" item. Since a ball is a "ball," the children might conclude that the unfamiliar object -- the "T" -- was the "blicket". In the direct instruction trial, the child was simply shown an unfamiliar item and heard the nonsense word. But the recollection was not as effective.

Halberda, Brinster's mentor, called his student's results "important".

"While we know that active engagement is the key to rapid learning," he said adding, "Meredith's result suggesting that knowledge gained via a child's own inferences is sometimes more powerful and longer lasting than knowledge gained through instruction may have powerful repercussions for how we teach new material. These implications have yet to be explored, but this first result is tantalising."

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