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How to Teach Children New Words by Showing Them Stuff

Parents who want a kid with a good vocabulary should make sure that they are showing their kid the world.

Parents know that vocabulary building is an incredibly important part of their job. A kid that says “mam” or “dada” is great, but ultimately they should be able to speak well enough to ask for directions. Understanding those fundamentals of communication can be helped by vocabulary games and vocabulary activity. To that end, it important for parents to stop gazing lovingly into their baby’s adorable face and start looking out at the world. Because babies aren’t only interested in babbling at a parent, they’re interested in what a parent is looking at, which helps them catalog all the things they see.

“In order to acquire words, you have to learn there’s a word out there called ‘cup,’ but then you now have to figure out which of the objects ‘cup’ refers to,” explains Dr. Celeste Kidd of the University of California Berkley Kidd Lab. This is known as the “mapping problem,” and Kidd notes that babies have an ingenious way to solve it. “We know that one of the primary keys that infants use to solve that problem is an adult’s eye gaze.”

How to Use Shared Gaze as a Vocabulary Activity

  • Look at objects in the world, point them out and name them during outings.
  • Use pictures and board books to introduce children to objects and animals they would not otherwise see.
  • Point to pictures in books and name the animals and objects outloud.
  • Understand that shared gaze can’t occur when looking at a cell phone.

Essentially, when a baby looks where an adult is looking and the adult uses a word to label what they’re looking at, the baby is able to map, or save, the association in their brain. In this way, they begin building a vocabulary. The act is called “shared gaze” and babies who exhibit a shared gaze ability early in the first year are found to understand far more words than babies who exhibit the ability later. That said, most babies are able to share an adult’s gaze by eight months of age.

Shared gaze has some important implications for parents in the age of cellphones and tablets, particularly when it comes to the phenomenon known as “phubbing,” a portmanteau of phone and snubbing. Because when a parent is beside their baby and their gaze is constantly on their device, their baby can’t share their gaze. It follows that there would be no mapping during this time. Shared gaze also has implications for the importance of reading picture books to babies. That’s because studies have shown that an infant can map objects that are in books too. “When you read books to your kids you get to jointly attend to objects you wouldn’t normally encounter in the real world,” says Kidd. “When you look at a giraffe in a book and point to it and say ‘giraffe’, it’s very clear what giraffe represents in the world.”

But Kidd notes that there are more benefits from a parent’s conscious effort to increase gaze sharing. Most notably, it requires the parent and child to interact. “Babies love being attended to,” she says. “Your kid will be happier.”

There’s also a huge caveat for parents to internalize once they’ve discovered the strange wonder of gaze sharing: Just because a baby is developing their vocabulary doesn’t mean they’re somehow going to be better for it in the future.

“Everybody, eventually, acquires all the words they need to,” explains Kidd. “It’s not clear how important early acquisition of words is. Kids talk at very different rates. I would caution parents to not be too worried.”