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The quantity and quality of parents’ utterances to their children differ significantly among socioeconomic groups and are critically related to children’s language development and later success in school (Walker et al., 1994). Thus, providing children with critical language input can not only influence their early language development but also their educational and professional success.
Young children tend to generalize novel names given to novel objects to other solid objects that share the same shape. Laboratory studies suggest that this “shape bias” effect is critically connected to children’s word learning and vocabulary growth. As children learn nouns, they learn to attend to shape and when attention to shape is further emphasized by laboratory training, noun learning is accelerated (Gershkoff-Stowe & Smith, 2004). However, all evidence of this process involves playing with 3D objects and multiple hours of one-on-one interaction, making it difficult to scale up in early interventions. Can children acquire language-based attentional biases from playing with 2D objects on a screen and will this experience promote later vocabulary growth?
We used a tablet-based game with two versions. In the Experimental version of the game children match objects similar in shape but not color (Figure 1A). In the Control version objects matched in both color and shape, and thus, attending to the shape is not necessary for completing the task (Figure 1B). At pretest we measured children’s productive vocabulary as well as their shape bias using real-world objects. Children and their parents were then introduced to the game and given the tablet to take home. Approximately a week later, children returned to the lab and we again measured their productive vocabulary and shape bias. We also measured productive vocabulary 1- and 2-months post intervention. We collected data from 100 children (50% male) between 15 and 20 months from families with diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.
Children in both groups played with the game approximately the same amount of time during the week (50 minutes). Children who played the shape-matching (Experimental) version of the game were significantly more likely to choose a shape match in the shape bias task at posttest, than children in the control group, b = 0.58, t (89) = 3.00, p = .003 (controlling for age, pretest shape bias, socioeconomic status, and number of days interacting with the game; Figure 2A). Moreover, we saw a small but promising effect of playing the shape-matching version of the game on vocabulary growth at 2 months, b = 0.31, t (89) = 1.74, p = .085 (controlling for age, pretest MCDI, socioeconomic status, and number of days interacting with the game; Figure 2B).
These results suggest that through a play activity using a non-language related screen-based game with 2D objects, children can acquire critical attentional biases that can be transferred to real-world objects, potentiating future word learning and generalization. Furthermore, our results also suggest that interventions using simple screen-based games could have a promising role in reducing differences in skills early on in children’s development, well before they start school.