A Different Kind of Word Gap, Marjorie Faulstich Orellana

A Different Kind of Word Gap, Marjorie Faulstich Orellana

The supposed “word gap” between children growing up in white middle class homes, and those from working class and immigrant families has received a great deal of attention in recent months. We have seen the proliferation of interventions that imply easy fixes to entrenched social problems. If parents would just feed their children more words, these children would grow cognitively, achieve in school, succeed in life, and all would be well in the world.

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Babies Learn New Words from Context—Not Quantity

Schools & Ecosystems

“Surprisingly, the key factor that predicts whether a word will emerge from a baby’s mouth isn’t tied to how many times the baby hears that particular word. Instead, a feature called distinctiveness is what makes the difference, the researchers report September 21 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Word frequency is important on some level, says Roy. “If a child has never heard a word, he’s not going to produce it.” But distinctiveness — the contextual features that situate a word in a particular place, time or situation — was much more important than frequency for predicting whether his son would say a word, Roy says. “No matter how you cut the data, it was head and shoulders above the other factors.””

—Laura Sanders, “For kids learning new words, it’s all about context” on ScienceNews

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