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Posted September 25, 2013

Children learn best during real-time interaction, new study finds

It's good news for grandparents across the country and the world: Young children readily learn new words in conversations through live video chat technology, such as Skype or Facetime.

Researchers have long known that youngsters have trouble learning new words from video or television screens, but that they are able to do so when interacting in a live dialogue with their parents, grandparents or child care providers.

Now, a new study from researchers at Temple University, the University of Washington, and the University of Delaware finds that children are able to learn new words through live video chat technology. The findings suggest that it’s the responsiveness of the interactions that’s key: When we respond to children in timely and meaningful ways, they learn—even when that response comes from a screen.

The study, Skype Me! Socially Contingent Interactions Help Toddlers Learn Language, appears this week in the journal Child Development.

“Our findings highlight the importance of responsive interactions for language learning,” said Hirsh-Pasek, professor of psychology at Temple, who coauthored the study.

“Interactions — such as live instruction and the video chats — allow adults and toddlers to respond to each other in a back-and-forth fashion." said Uuniversity of Washington's Sarah Roseberry, who conducted the study at Temple's Infant Lab as a graduate student. "These types of interactions seem to be central for learning words.”

For the study, three dozen two-year-olds were randomly assigned to learn new verbs in one of three ways: training with a live person, training through video chat technology such as Skype, and watching a DVD of the same person instructing a different child who was off screen and thus out of sync with the child in the study.

The researchers found that children learned new words only when either conversing with a person or when interacting via live video chat technology, both of which involved responsive, back-and-forth social interactions. They were not able to learn the new words through the prerecorded video instruction on DVD.

Children who learned in the two environments that involved real-time conversation even used the new words to label the actions when different people performed them.

“The research has important implications for language learning,” Hirsh-Pasek continues. “Children are less likely to learn from DVDs and televised programming than from live, back-and-forth responsive interactions with caring adults. Young children are not good at learning language if they’re merely parked in front of screen media.”

Funding for the study came from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Science Foundation.

Posted In: Research
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