Experimenting with Babies

Science projects you can perform on your kid, plus developmental news and research

Help Your Toddler Communicate Unambiguously

Try this simple experiment, based on a 2007 study, on your own child.

My younger son, who's not quite 2, has begun to insist on choosing things. He wants to choose his own spoon at mealtime. He wants to choose the book we read at bedtime. He even wants to choose his own diaper, even though they all look exactly the same.

As he's developing this desire to choose, he's also developing his ability to communicate which of several objects he is referring to when making his choice.

Babies and toddlers typically start out by using a pointed finger to identify a referent (that is, a person or object to which they are referring). They soon learn to use speech to identify the referent by name (e.g. "ball" or "girl"). Then comes a point when they need to distinguish between several objects that share the same name, such as multiple balls of various colors. Now, they need to figure out how to communicate something about the referent that is uniquely identifying (e.g. "the red ball" or "the girl with the dog").

In a 2007 study published in Child Development, researchers examined how young children learn to refer to things unambiguously. They constructed an experiment in which the children were asked to choose out-of-reach stickers that matched illustrations in a story book.

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Below is an adapted version of that experiment, which you can try on your own toddler.

"Picking Pictures"

Age range: 24 to 36 months

Research areas: Cognitive and language development


The Experiment

Print out two copies of the farm animal illustrations below.

Cut out the animals from one copy and attach them to a surface such as a corkboard that is hung high enough to be out of your toddler's reach.

Now, show your toddler the other copy of the illustrations. Point to a particular animal and ask her to help you find its match on the corkboard.

Because the pictures on the corkboard are out of reach, she will have to either point to the matching picture or describe it.

If she only points, say that you can't tell which picture she's referring to and ask her to instead use words to identify the picture.

If she uses words to describe the picture she wants, but her words are ambiguous -- for instance, if there is more than one rabbit, then merely saying "rabbit" is ambiguous -- ask her to clarify. For instance, you might say, "Do you want the brown rabbit or the gray rabbit?"

Spend about 10 minutes a day playing this matching game over the course of several days.


The Hypothesis

The first time you play the game, your toddler is likely to start out by either pointing or using ambiguous words, but after several sessions, she will begin using more descriptive, less ambiguous phrases.


The Research

In the 2007 study, children between ages 2 and 4 were asked to select stickers that matched images in a story book. The stickers were placed on a wall, high enough up that only the adult experimenter could reach them. The experimenter asked the children which sticker they wanted and then responded to either their pointing or their verbal description.

The children played the sticker matching game several times over a three-day period, and the researchers found that over the course of the experiment, the children showed improvement in their abilty to unambigously refer to the stickers they wanted.

At the start of the sessions, the younger children mostly pointed at the stickers or used ambiguous names. At the conclusion, children in all age groups were more likely to unambiguously identify the sticker they wanted and less likely to use only pointing.

For instance, at the start of the experiment two-year-olds used pointing in about 45 percent of their responses and uniquely identifying language in only about 10 percent of responses.

By the end of the experiment, the two-year-olds used pointing in only about 10 percent of their responses, but were able to uniquely identify the referent in about 40 percent of cases.


The Takeaway

One of the main takeaways from this study is that perspective matters when it comes to learning how to uniquely refer to something.

The study included several variants on the experiment presented above. In one variant, the roles were reversed: The experimenter used sometimes ambiguous language to describe a sticker, and the child had to guess which sticker the experimenter wanted. In another variant, two experimenters played the game while the child merely observed.

The researchers found that the children who participated in those variants did not show as marked an improvement in their ability to uniquely identify a referent as the children who had to request the stickers themselves, and who received helpful feedback, in the form of requests for clarification of ambiguities, during the course of the exercise.

They suggest that when children get feedback about their own communication attempts, they are better able to learn from that feedback than if it is someone else's communication attempts that receive feedback -- even if they observe that feedback, and indeed even if they are the ones who give that feedback.

One way to incoporate this principle into your own interactions with your child is to seek out games and learning exercises in which the child is the primary communicator. For instance, let your child be Simon in a game of "Simon Says," or let her be the spy in a game of "I Spy."


The Source

The experiment above was adapted from:

Matthews, Danielle; Lieven, Elena; and Tomasello, Michael. "How Toddlers and Preschoolers Learn to Uniquely Identify Referents for Others: A Training Study," Child Development 78:6(1744-1759), November 2007.

The farm animal illustrations are public-domain images from OpenClipArt.org.

Shaun Gallagher is the author of "Experimenting With Babies: 50 Amazing Science Projects You Can Perform on Your Kid."


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