Larissa K. Samuelson, PhD Professor Developmental Dynamics Lab     School of Psychology; UK 14th for Research Quality Psychology, Psychiatry, and Neuroscience University of East Anglia, United Kingdom

Study Uses Visual Attention to Assess How Young Children Learn New Words Interview with:

Larissa K. Samuelson, PhD Professor Developmental Dynamics Lab     School of Psychology; UK 14th for Research Quality Psychology, Psychiatry, and Neuroscience University of East Anglia, United KingdomLarissa K. Samuelson, PhD
Developmental Dynamics Lab
School of Psychology; UK 14th for Research Quality
Psychology, Psychiatry, and Neuroscience
University of East Anglia, United Kingdom What is the background for this study?

Response: Words direct the attention of infants, children and adults to mentioned objects in the environment. When someone says “Can you find the candy,” you look to the candy sitting on the counter. This fact is the basis of many tests of infant cognition in laboratories. To find out if a child knows the word “bike” we put a picture of a bike and a truck on a TV screen, say the word “bike” and see if they look at the correct object.

There is also evidence that words can direct attention even if you don’t know what they mean yet. For example, in studies of learning in the lab novel made up words like “modi” can direct children’s attention to specific features of objects. One particular example of this is the “shape bias”. If a two-year-old is shown a novel object and told a novel name, for example “This is my blicket,” and then asked, “Can you get your blicket” and shown one object that matches the named one in shape and another that is made from the same material, they will attend to the one that matches in shape. Researchers think the naming event “This is my…” cues children to look at things that are the same shape because they already know many names for things in sets that are similar in shape; cups are all cup-shaped, keys are all key-shaped, spoons are all spoon-shaped, etc.

Prior research suggests there may be differences in the way children who struggle with language decide what a new word means. For example, children with Developmental Language Disorder do not pay attention to the same things when learning new words as children with typical language development. These children do not look to an object that matches a named exemplar in shape when asked to “get your blicket”. But you can’t diagnose children with DLD until they are 3 or 4. We want to see if we can identify these children earlier, so they can get early support. What are the main findings?

Response: We tested children in the “get your blicket” naming task but used a close-up recording of their eyes so we could see where they were looking and how quickly. Our findings show that children who knew more nouns quickly decided which other object was the blicket after the name was said. Also, children who knew fewer nouns took longer and spent more time looking back and forth between the objects before making a generalization decision. We think these children did not yet know enough words to support making quick decisions about what new words mean. This suggests we might be able to boost word learning in children by helping them learn what to pay attention to when they hear a new word. We hope that by understanding how words help to guide visual attention during learning we can provide better support for children struggling to build their vocabularies before starting school. What should readers take away from your report?

Response: We would argue that as young children are learning new words and building their vocabulary, they are also learning how to learn more words. As they learn more names, they start to see patterns in how names match to groups of things. If they learn many names for solid objects in sets that are similar in shape – names like “cup,” and “key,” and “spoon” they learn that it might be a good idea to pay attention to the shape of a solid object when a new name is said. That means that providing children with lots of naming examples and helping them learn lots of words can support them learning more words in the future. That can help them build their best vocabulary and be more ready to enter school with the language skills they need. What recommendations do you have for future research as a results of this study?

Response: Overall, more research is needed to investigate multiple perceptual, cognitive, and word-learning process in both children with typical language development and those with delays in word learning. Specifically, expanding our understanding of complex relationship between language and visual perception, as well as the processes such as memory and attention and how they support early word learning, is crucial for developing a deeper understanding of how children learn words and how to support this learning process. And looking at these processes early and how they change as children learn more words is important so we can predict which children will need more support.


Bakopoulou, M., Lorenz, M. G., Forbes, S. H., Tremlin, R., Bates, J., & Samuelson, L. K. (2023). Vocabulary and automatic attention: The relation between novel words and gaze dynamics in noun generalization. Developmental Science, 00, e13399.

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Last Updated on April 19, 2023 by Marie Benz