Kids learn more words through repetition from both books and screens

February 22, 2021

A combo of books and video teach words best. (AP Photo/Joel Ryan)

Preschool-aged children were able to pick up more new vocabulary words through a combination of learning tools like physical books and digital screens rather than just one medium, according to a new study that showed kids learn best through repeated exposure to different media. 

Books have been the traditional, dominant medium for learning incidental words, with video thought of as a secondary tool that may or may not be as useful. Susan Neuman, a professor at New York University and lead author of the paper published Feb. 16 in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, and her co-authors concluded, however, that children made more significant gains in incidental word learning when they viewed two different forms of media of comparable content, like books and screens, compared to two exposures to a single medium.

“Both of these have the potential to really improve children’s learning, and when you put them together and give them repeated presentations of different media, that can be very powerful,” Neuman said.

Showing a story repeatedly is a powerful mechanism for teaching vocabulary words to children younger than 5 years old, Neuman told The Academic Times. Word learning is a key predictor to children’s achievement in terms of comprehension and school success, but there hasn’t been much study into the most effective forms of media to improve vocabulary in young kids. Most of the words children add to their vocabularies between the ages of a year and a half and 5 are learned incidentally, meaning through everyday interactions and without explicit instruction. 

The research team recruited a sample of 140 preschoolers in the U.S. and conducted a learning study in three phases over the course of four months. In the first phase, the kids were split into two groups, either book-learning or video-learning, and were told stories through that medium. They were tested for whether repeated exposure to “target words” in the book or video story affected their learning of those words.

The stories given to the children were modified slightly to include nine target words that were unlikely to be known by preschoolers and were either nouns, verbs or adjectives. The words were reflection, dragonfly, hummingbird, hollow, clumsy, enthusiastic, discuss, panting and admire.

Phase two of the study examined differences in word learning and comprehension for the two groups. The children either received a repeated presentation of the story by book or video, or received a comparable story using both media. The third phase tested the full sample for whether the phase two findings would be replicated if words were embedded in a different story.

Prior to the study, the children took the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test as an indicator of their baseline language proficiency. The test asks participants to connect vocabulary words to corresponding pictures, either through pointing or multiple choice. The kids also took a receptive vocabulary test, similar to the PPVT, of the target words developed by the researchers before and after the study, in which the kids were instructed to point to a target word among three picture options. 

And following each viewing or reading session, children’s comprehension of the story was measured, and they were asked to verbally recall what they remembered about the story. 

For phase one, the children demonstrated that they could learn words separately through educational books or videos. In the two conditions, the kids showed significant gains in their vocabulary from before the test to after the test. There were no significant differences in learning between book and video formats, indicating that books and videos are equally as effective in teaching vocabulary to young children.

But when the researchers compared children who were exposed to the story through both video and book sessions to children who only utilized the video or the book, they found that those using the combination of media substantially outperformed the single-medium group in incidental word learning of the target words.

“These results suggest that two different media presentations of the same story seemed to better support word learning than a repetition of the story through the same medium,” the authors said.

Screen media may offer unique features to word learning, the authors suggested, as the visual representations of words and sounds may draw children’s attention to words and add new dimensions to their meaning. Each medium has the potential to expose children to a different set of processing tools, which in combination might contribute to better incidental word learning and comprehension, the authors said in the paper.

“Seeing a film of a story, as well as reading the books, generally enhances your understanding, your development and your emotional attachment to that story,” Neuman said. “And so I think that’s very important, that children naturally cross media. If they like something, they’re likely to want it in books, on screen and across a whole bunch of activities, and we’re saying that will likely help children learn.”

Children should be introduced to different symbol systems from a young age, which refer to codes, conventions and formats that are often used by media, such as the ability to “zoom in” with video. Different media with unique symbol systems might contribute to children’s learning, the authors said, suggesting that this is something likely underutilized in classrooms and in homes. 

“Today, the media in which stories are communicated have shifted dramatically, with quality educational programming burgeoning on digital formats in recent years,” the authors said in the paper.

“The same storylines now routinely cross media boundaries, with children’s initial exposure to stories as likely to come from the screen as it is from the book. It is time to take advantage of the multiple representations of stories, and the potential added benefit they may produce for children's incidental word learning,” they continued.

The study, “Two may be better than one: Promoting incidental word learning through multiple media,” was published Feb. 16 in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. Susan Neuman of New York University was the lead author. Preeti Samudra, of State University of New York, Plattsburgh, and Kevin Wong, of Pepperdine University, served as co-authors. 

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