Seeing is believing: The role of the written form in word learning

Category: Bookbug

We all encounter new words every day – especially children.  We might hear an unfamiliar word during a story time or while having a conversation with another person. We might see an unfamiliar word printed in a book or on a sign. It could be a word you already know but have used in a different context.

I once attended a talk by a speech and language pathologist who said that in order to remember a new word a child needs to hear it about 250 times. That’s a lot of repetitions. But it is common knowledge that repetition supports learning. The more we are exposed to something, the more we know what to expect. The more times we hear something, or do something, the quicker our brain can recall the information.  

Words serve a very important purpose of communication. They help us to get our point across. If you don’t have the right word, you can’t express yourself accurately. If you struggle to say what you mean, then you can grow increasingly frustrated because you aren’t able to express yourself clearly. It turns into a cyclical problem. And with each turn of the circle, the frustration escalates.

Words are so powerful that I think they are one of the most important things we need to help children experience. Not just hear, but experience.  We need to experience how the word is said, how the word looks and how the word can be used in different sentences. Have children repeat new words, see new words and attempt to use new words.

Letting children see the written form of a word is a key part of their language learning. In order to more effectively grasp the meaning of a word, children need to see it – even in their pre-reading stage. Seeing the word allows the child a chance to gather a visual representation of the sounds. Even if they’re unable to read the word at an early stage, they will be able to store a visual representation that will in turn be more easily recalled.

The next time you’re reading a book with children and they come across a new word, show them what the word looks like on the page. This simple action can increase a child’s motivation to learn to read.  Give them a chance to link the sound of the word, the feel of the word and look of the word together. The visual experience of a word is often overlooked in the process of vocabulary learning. After all, seeing is believing.