Childrens learning

How children learn and strategies to help them

Early development

Children’s understanding, and their use of memory and learning strategies, is a considerably more complex situation than most of us realize. To get some feeling for this complexity, let’s start by looking at a specific area of knowledge: mathematics.

Children's math understanding

Here’s a math problem:

Pete has 3 apples. Ann also has some apples. Pete and Ann have 9 apples altogether. How many apples does Ann have?

This seems pretty straightforward, right? How about this one:

Pete and Ann have 9 apples altogether. Three of these belong to Pete and the rest belong to Ann. How many apples does Ann have?

The same problem, phrased slightly differently. Would it surprise you to know that this version is more likely to be correctly answered by children than the first version?

Whether or not a child solves a math problem correctly is not simply a matter of whether he or she knows the math — the way the problem is worded plays a crucial part in determining whether the child understands the problem correctly. Slight (and to adult eyes, insignificant) differences in the wording of a problem have a striking effect on whether children can solve it.

Mathematics also provides a clear demonstration of the seemingly somewhat haphazard development in cognitive abilities. It’s not haphazard, of course, but it sometimes appears that way from the adult perspective. In math, understanding different properties of the same concept can take several years. For example, children’s understanding of addition and subtraction is not an all-or-none business; adding as combining is grasped by young children quite early, but it takes some 2 to 3 years at school to grasp the essential invariants of additive relations. Multiplicative relations are even harder, with children up to age 10 or so often having great difficulty with proportion, probability, area and division.

Neurological differences between children and adults

Part of the problems children have with math stems from developmental constraints — their brains simply aren’t ready for some concepts. A recent imaging study of young people (aged 8-19 years) engaged in mental arithmetic, found that on simple two-operand addition or subtraction problems (for which accuracy was comparable across age), older subjects showed greater activation in the left parietal cortex, along the supramarginal gyrus and adjoining anterior intra-parietal sulcus as well as the left lateral occipital temporal cortex. Younger subjects showed greater activation in the prefrontal cortex (including the dorsolateral and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex), suggesting that they require comparatively more working memory and attentional resources to achieve similar levels of performance, and greater activation of the hippocampus and dorsal basal ganglia, reflecting the greater demands placed on both declarative and procedural memory systems.

In other words, the evidence suggests that the left inferior parietal cortex becomes increasingly specialized for mental arithmetic with practice, and this process is accompanied by a reduced need for memory and attentional resources.

Not just a matter of brain maturation

But this isn't the whole story. As the earlier example indicated, difficulties in understanding some concepts are often caused by the way the concepts are explained. This is why it’s so important to keep re-phrasing problems and ideas until you find one that “clicks”. Other difficulties are caused by the preconceptions the child brings with them — cultural practices, for example, can sometimes help and sometimes hinder learning.

Other domains: neurological differences between children and adults

What's true of mathematics is also true of other learning areas. When we teach children, we do need to consider developmental constraints, but recent studies suggest we may have over-estimated the importance of development.

In an intriguing imaging study, brain activity in children aged 7-10 and adults (average age 25 years) while doing various language tasks was compared. Six sub-regions in the left frontal and the left extrastriate cortex were identified as being significant. Both these areas are known to play a key role in language processing and are believed to undergo substantial development between childhood and adulthood.

Now comes the interesting part. The researchers attempted to determine whether these differences between children and adults were due to brain maturation or simply the result of slower and less accurate performance by children. By using information regarding each individual's performance on various tasks, they ended up with only two of the six sub-regions (one in the frontal cortex, one in the extrastriate cortex) showing differences that were age-related rather than performance-related (with the extrastriate region being more active in children than adults, while the frontal region was active in adults and not in children).

The researchers concluded that, yes, children do appear to use their brains differently than adults when successfully performing identical language tasks; however, although multiple regions appeared to be differentially active when comparing adults and children, many of those differences were due to performance discrepancies, not age-related maturation.

Childhood amnesia

Let's talk about childhood amnesia for a moment. "Childhood amnesia" is a term for what we all know -- we have very few memories of our early years. This is so familiar, you may never have considered why this should be so. But the reason is not in fact obvious. Freud speculated that we repressed those early memories (but Freud was hung up on repression); modern cognitive psychologists have considered immature memory processing skills may be to blame. This is surely true for the first months -- very young babies have extremely limited abilities at remembering anything for long periods of time (months), and research suggests that the dramatic brain maturation that typically occurs between 8 and 12 months is vital for long-term memory.

But an intriguing study (carried out by researchers at my old stomping ground: the University of Otago in New Zealand) has provided evidence that an important stumbling block in our remembrance of our early years is the child's grasp of language. If you don't have the words to describe what has happened, it seems that it is very difficult to encode it as a memory -- or at least, that it is very difficult to retrieve (before you leap on me with examples, let me add that noone is saying that every memory is encoded in words -- this is palpably not true).

This finding is supported by a recent study that found that language, in the form of specific kinds of sentences spoken aloud, helped 4-year-old children remember mirror image visual patterns.

The role of social interaction in memory development

Another study from my favorite university looked at the role mothers played in developing memory in their young children. The study distinguished between reminiscing (discussing shared experiences) and recounting (discussing unshared experiences). Children 40 months old and 58 months old were studied as they talked about past events with their mothers. It was found that mothers who provided more memory information during reminiscing and requested more memory information during recounting had children who reported more unique information about the events.

In general, parents seldom try to teach memory strategies directly to children, but children do learn strategies by observing and imitating what their parents do and this may in fact be a more effective means of teaching a child rather than by direct instruction.

But parents not only provide models of behavior; they also guide their children's behavior. The way they do this is likely to be influenced by their own beliefs about their children’s mnemonic abilities. If you don't believe your child can possibly remember something, you are unlikely to ask them to make the effort. But when parents ask 2 – 4 year olds to remind them to do something in the future, even 2 year olds remember to remind their parents of promised treats 80% of the time.

By 3 yrs old, children whose mothers typically asked questions about past events performed better on memory tasks than those children whose mothers only questioned them about present events. Observation of mothers as they taught their 4 year olds to sort toys, copy etch-a-sketch designs, and respond to questions regarding hypothetical situations found 3 interaction styles found that related to the child’s performance:

  • imperative-normative, in which mother gave little justification for requests or demands;
  • subjective, in which mother encouraged child to see his own behaviour from another’s point of view;
  • cognitive-rational, in which mother offered logical justifications for requests and demands.

Children whose mothers used the last two styles were more verbal and performed better on cognitive tasks.

A study of kindergarten and elementary school teachers found that children from classes where teachers frequently made strategy suggestions were better able to verbalize aspects of memory training and task performance. Although this made no difference for high achieving children, average and low achievers were more likely to continue using the trained strategy if they had teachers who frequently made strategy suggestions.

Conclusion

What lessons can we learn from all this?

First, we must note that there are indeed developmental constraints on children's capabilities that are rooted in physical changes in the brain. Some of these are simply a matter of time, but others are changes that require appropriate stimulation and training.

Secondly, the importance of language in enabling the child cannot be overestimated.

And thirdly, for children as with older adults, expectations about memory performance can reduce their capabilities. Supportive, directed assistance in developing memory and reasoning strategies can be very effective in helping even very young children.

References: 

  • Best, D.L. 1992. The role of social interaction in memory improvement. In D. Herrmann, H. Weingartner, A. Searleman & C. McEvoy (eds.) Memory Improvement: Implications for Memory Theory. New York: Springer-Verlag. pp 122-49.
  • Liston, C. & Kagan, J. 2002. Brain development: Memory enhancement in early childhood. Nature, 419, 896-896.
  • Reese, E. & Brown, N. 2000. Reminiscing and recounting in the preschool years. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 14 (1), 1-17.
  • Rivera, S.M., Reiss, A.L., Eckert, M.A. & Menon, V. 2005. Developmental Changes in Mental Arithmetic: Evidence for Increased Functional Specialization in the Left Inferior Parietal Cortex. Cerebral Cortex, 15 (11), 1779-1790.
  • Schlaggar, B.L., Brown, T.T., Lugar, H.M., Visscher, K.M., Miezin, F.M. & Petersen, S.E. 2002. Functional neuroanatomical differences between adults and school-age children in the processing of single words. Science, 296, 1476-9.
  • Vergnaud, G. 1997. The Nature of Mathematical Concepts. In T. Nunes & P. Bryant (Eds.), Learning and Teaching Mathematics: An International Perspectives (pp. 5-28). Eastern Sussex: Psychology Press Ltd.

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Picture overload hurts preschooler's word learning

  • A study has found that having more than one illustration results in poorer word learning among pre-schoolers — but this can be mitigated if the reader draws the pre-schooler’s attention to each illustration.

When you're reading a picture book to a very young child, it's easy to think it's obvious what picture, or part of a picture, is being talked about. But you know what all the words mean. It's not so easy when some of the words are new to you, and the open pages have more than one picture. A recent study has looked at the effect on word learning of having one vs two illustrations on a 2-page open spread.

The study, in two experiments, involved the child being read to from a 10-page storybook, which included two novel objects, mentioned four times, but only incidentally. In the first experiment, 36 preschoolers (average age 3.5 years) were randomly assigned to one of three conditions:

  • one illustration (the illustration filled the page, with the text written as part of the illustration, and the opposing page blank)
  • two illustrations (each illustration filled its page, on opposing pages)
  • one large illustration (the page was twice the size of that found in the other conditions) — this was the control condition.

Children who were read stories with only one illustration at a time learned twice as many words as children who were read stories with two or more illustrations. There was no difference in reading time, or in the child’s enjoyment of the story.

In a follow-up experiment, 12 preschoolers were shown the two-illustration books only, but this time the reader used a simple hand swipe gesture to indicate the correct illustration before the page was read to them. With this help, the children learned best of all.

In fact, the rate of word learning in this last condition was comparable to that observed in other studies using techniques such as pointing or asking questions. Asking questions is decidedly better than simply reading without comment, and yet this simple gesture was enough to match that level of learning.

Other studies have shown that various distractions added to picture books, like flaps to lift, reduce learning. All this is best understood in terms of cognitive load. The most interesting thing about this study is that it took so little to ameliorate the extra load imposed by the two illustrations.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-06/uos-poh063017.php

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-07/w-tno071217.php

Also see https://blogs.sussex.ac.uk/psychology/2016/10/24/how-storybook-illustrat... for a blog post by one of the researchers

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Is it really better to read print books to your toddler?

  • A comparison of non-interactive electronic books and their print counterparts has found that toddlers learned more from the electronic books, but this was accounted for by their greater attention and engagement.

A new issue for parents to stress over is the question of whether reading digital books with your toddler or preschooler is worse than reading traditional print books. Help on this complicated question comes from a new study involving 102 toddlers aged 17 to 26 months, whose parents were randomly assigned to read two commercially available electronic books or two print books with identical content with their toddler (this was achieved by printing out screenshots of the electronic books).

The books included familiar farm animals (duck, horse, sheep, cow) and also wild animals (koala, crocodile, zebra, and lion), some of which were new to the children). After reading, the children were asked to identify three of the familiar animals and three of the unfamiliar.

The electronic books included background music, animation and sound effects for each page as well as an automatic voiceover that read the text aloud to the child, but there were no actions or hotspots for extra features.

Compared to those who read the print versions, toddlers who read the electronic books:

  • paid more attention
  • made themselves more available for story time
  • participated more
  • commented more about the content.

While parents tended to point at the print book more often, there was no difference between the books in the amount they talked with their children about the story. However, parent–child pairs spent almost twice as much time reading the electronic books than the print books.

Overall, children did significantly better on the learning task when they had read the electronic book. However, analysis showed that the benefit was accounted for by two variables:

  • attention
  • availability for reading.

The researchers note, however, that this may not be true of all electronic books. Previous research has suggested that highly interactive electronic books may distract from learning.

Additionally, the simplicity of electronic books for toddlers may be much better. Books for preschoolers, on the other hand, are more narrative, requiring readers to integrate content across pages. In this circumstance, electronic books may be more distracting.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-06/f-sto062117.php

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Each hour of screen time linked to poorer grades

  • A large study found teenagers' grades suffered significantly and linearly, for each hour spent watching TV, using the internet or playing computer games.
  • Of these activities, the most harmful was watching TV.
  • Hours spent doing homework or reading for pleasure were each associated with a significant increase in GCSE grades.
  • The amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity had no effect on grades.

A study involving 845 secondary school students has revealed that each hour per day spent watching TV, using the internet or playing computer games at average age 14.5 years was associated with poorer GCSE grades at age 16. Additionally, each hour of daily homework and reading was linked to significantly better grades. Surprisingly, however, the amount of physical activity had no effect on academic performance.

Median screen time was four hours a day, of which around half was spent watching TV; median sedentary non-screen time (reading/homework) was 1.5 hours.

Each hour per day of time spent in front of the TV or computer in Year 10 was associated with 9.3 fewer GCSE points in Year 11 — the equivalent to two grades in one subject or one grade in each of two subjects. Two hours was therefore associated with 18 fewer points at GCSE, and the median of four hours, with a worrying 36 fewer points.

The burning question: are some screens better than others? Comparison of the different screen activities revealed that TV viewing was the most detrimental to grades.

More positively, each hour of daily homework and reading was associated with an average 23.1 more GCSE points. This was a U-shaped function, however, with pupils doing over four hours of reading or homework a day performing less well than their peers. But the number of pupils in this category was relatively low (only 52 pupils) and may include students who were struggling at school.

The benefits from spending time on homework or reading were not simply a consequence of spending less time staring at a screen; screen time and time spent reading or doing homework were independently associated with academic performance.

Do note that, although some homework was doubtless done on the computer, this was not counted as screen time for the purposes of this study.

The finding of no significant association between moderate to vigorous physical activity and academic performance is more surprising, given the evidence for the benefits of exercise and physical fitness for cognition. The median was 39 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day, with a quarter of the students getting less than 20 minutes a day, and a quarter getting more than 65 minutes.

The data used was from the ROOTS study, a large longitudinal study assessing health and wellbeing during adolescence. Objective levels of activity and time spent sitting were assessed through a combination of heart rate and movement sensing. Screen time, time spent doing homework, and reading for pleasure, relied on self-report. Medians were used rather than means, because of the degree of skew in the data.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-09/uoc-eho090115.php

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Parents' math anxiety can undermine children's math achievement

  • 1st- & 2nd-grade children learned less math and developed more math anxiety when math-anxious parents frequently helped with their math homework.
  • Children with math-anxious parents who rarely helped with their math homework were not affected.

A study of 438 first- and second-grade students and their primary caregivers has revealed that parents' math anxiety affects their children's math performance — but (and this is the surprising bit) only when they frequently help them with their math homework.

The study builds on previous research showing that students learn less math when their teachers are anxious about math. This is not particularly surprising, and it wouldn't have been surprising if this study had found that math-anxious parents had math-anxious children. But the story wasn't that simple.

Children were assessed in reading achievement, math achievement and math anxiety at both the beginning and end of the school year. Children of math-anxious parents learned significantly less math over the school year and had more math anxiety by the year end—but only if math-anxious parents reported providing help every day with math homework. When parents reported helping with math homework once a week or less often, children’s math achievement and attitudes were not related to parents’ math anxiety. Reading achievement (included as a control) was not related to parents' math anxiety.

Interestingly, the parents' level of math knowledge didn't change this effect (although this is less surprising when you consider the basic-level of math taught in the 1st and 2nd grade).

Sadly, the effect still held even when the teacher was strong in math.

It's suggested that math-anxious parents may be less effective in explaining math concepts, and may also respond less helpfully when children make a mistake or solve the problem in a non-standard way. People with high math anxiety tend to have poor attitudes toward math, and also a high fear of failing at math. It's also possible (likely even) that they will have inflexible attitudes to how a math problem “should” be done. All of these are likely to demotivate the child.

Analysis also indicated that it is not that parents induced math anxiety in their children, who thus did badly, but that their homework help caused the child to do poorly, thus increasing their math anxiety.

Information about parental anxiety and how often parents helped their children with math homework was collected by questionnaire. Math anxiety was assessed using the short (25-item) Math Anxiety Rating Scale. The question, “How often do you help your child with their math homework?” was answered on a 7-point scale (1 = never, 2 = once a month, 3 = less than once a week, 4 = once a week, 5 = 2–3 times a week, 6 = every day, 7 = more than once a day). The mean was 5.3.

The finding points to the need for interventions focused on both decreasing parents' math anxiety and scaffolding their skills in how to help with math homework. It also suggests that, in the absence of such support, math-anxious parents are better not to help!

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-08/uoc-pma080715.php

http://www.futurity.org/parents-math-anxiety-979472/

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Support for the use of song in learning a foreign language

  • Children taught foreign language vocabulary in the form of a song learned to pronounce the words better than those who learned the words using an oral poem.
  • Recall was also significantly better, and particularly so after six months.

A small study that compared teaching Spanish-speaking children English vocabulary using a song or a spoken poem has found definite and long-term advantages to the song form.

The study involved 38 Spanish-speaking Ecuadorian children (aged 9-13), of whom 22 were randomly assigned to learn a 29-word English text as an oral poem, and 16 learned it as a song. None of the children had had any formal instruction in English; all had some limited music training. The children were given 4 training sessions and 3 testing sessions over two weeks, with a final test for 13 children six months later.

Children in the song condition out-performed those in the spoken condition on every measure: their ability to recall the passage verbatim, pronounce the words, and translate target terms from English to Spanish.

While pronunciation of vowels was notably better, though there was no difference in consonants.

Long-term recall is of course the main question of interest: six months after this little experiment, with no English instruction since, those from the song condition could recall without prompting an average of 8.83 words out of 10 target words, compared with 0.29 words for those from the spoken condition. However, there was no significant difference in translation success, which was extremely low in both cases (2.26 vs 1.07 — this compares with 4.03 vs 2.69 at the end of training).

The song itself, its melody and rhythmic structure, was remembered very well. The children in the song condition also enjoyed the learning sessions much more.

The study is small, and comes with several caveats, but it does provide support for the use of songs as an adjunct to foreign language learning.

Reference: 

[3969] Good AJ, Russo FA, Sullivan J. The efficacy of singing in foreign-language learning. Psychology of Music [Internet]. 2015 ;43(5):627 - 640. Available from: http://pom.sagepub.com/content/43/5/627

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Mnemonics for Children

Use of visual imagery in children

Research into whether young children can improve recall by using visual imagery has produced mixed results. It would seem that, in general, the instruction to generate mental images does not improve recall in children 5 yrs and younger, but does improve recall in children 8 years and above. Children of six and seven appear to be at a transitional stage whereby some children can use the strategy effectively in some situations.

Danner FW & Taylor AM. 1973. Integrated pictures and relational imagery training in children’s learning. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 16, 47-54.

Finding: trained 1st, 3rd and 6th graders to use interactive imagery to recall sets of three concrete nouns. There were three different training methods:

(1) The children were trained to generate their own interactive images, by drawing three integrated pictures of the separate pictures of nouns. For the first practice set they were shown an example of an integrated picture. The experimenter asked them to describe the relationship between the three items, then cued recall of two items with a picture of the third. There were two more practice sets, in which the child received encouragement and correction.

(2) The children were shown three integrated pictures (each showing integration of three items). Each picture was presented for 20 seconds, during which the items were named and the child asked to remember them. Recall of two items was cued by showing a picture of the third.

(3) The children were simply presented with integrated pictures.

It was found that 6th graders recalled more when required to generate own images (i.e., trained using method 1). For 1st and 3rd graders, methods 1 and 2 were equally good for training. Since pictures are usually more effective than visual imagery for these ages, these results indicate the benefits of training. It’s worth noting that only 15-20 seconds were given for the child to generate their own image, and greater benefits might well have been apparent if the child had been given more time.

Use of the story (sentence) mnemonic

The story, or sentence, mnemonic is a verbal mnemonic in which words to be remembered are linked together in a sentence or sentences. It is an effective strategy for learning a list of words.

The research confirms that memory even in very young children can be helped by teaching them to use this verbal mnemonic strategy.

It is more effective if the words (usually nouns) are linked by verbs rather than prepositions — simply stringing together words like this: The cat and the banana and the boat were in the sky” is much less memorable than composing: “The cat ate the banana and tossed the boat into the sky.”

Sentence mnemonics have been effectively used by 6th graders (10 year olds) to remember the correct spelling of words.

Levin JR & Rohwer WD 1968. Verbal organization and the facilitation of serial learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 59, 186-91.

Finding: gave 4th and 5th graders a sentence mnemonic to recall 14 nouns. For example, the grey cat/jumped over the log/and crossed the street/to find the bowl/of cold milk/under the chair/in the new house/by the blue lake/where the young boy/lost his left shoe/while eating the fish/on the wooden boat/during the storm/that came last year. Recall of the 14 nouns was better using the sentence mnemonic than simply learning the list of nouns.

Negin GA 1978. Mnemonics and demonic words. Reading Improvement, 15, 180-2.

Finding: used sentence mnemonics to reduce spelling errors. Ten misspelled words were selected from 6th graders’ written assignments. The children were given two hours’ instruction on the use of sentence mnemonics in remembering spelling. They were given examples such as, “She screamed EEE as she passed the cemetery”; “StationERy is for a lettER”; “My skin shows resisTANce to a TAN”. They were told they could use two sentences if it was too hard to put in one. They were instructed to compare their misspellings with the proper form, locate the discrepancy, create a sentence associating the word with the correct spelling and rehearse the sentence. Their learning was compared with a group of children who were told to compare misspellings with the correct form, write each word in a meaningful sentence, underline the difficult section and rehearse the word. After each practice session, the children formed pairs and dictated words to each other. After six weeks, there was no significant difference in performance between the two groups, but after ten weeks, the children using mnemonics performed significantly better.

Pressley M. 1982. Elaboration and memory development. Child Development, 53, 296-309.

Finding: reviewed the research and concluded that even nursery school children improved in their learning when instructed to generate verbal elaborations.

Rohwer WD 1966. Constraint, syntax, and meaning in paired-associate learning. Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior, 5, 541-7. Rohwer WD 1970. Images and pictures in children’s learning: Research results and educational implications. Psychology Bulletin, 73, 393-403.

Finding: sentence mnemonics using verbs (e.g., the dog closes the gate) helped remembering more than sentences using prepositions to join the nouns (e.g. the dog and the gate).

Use of the keyword mnemonic

The keyword method is one of the most successful mnemonic strategies to be used in education. It is of proven effectiveness as a method of learning new words, foreign language words, and social studies facts. As a technique for learning new words, it has been compared with the following common strategies:

  • learning words in context
  • finding root words
  • learning synonyms and antonyms
  • presenting words in meaningful sentences
  • having students discriminate correct from incorrect use of words in sentences and
  • having students generate their own meaningful sentences

and is apparently more effective than any of these methods.

The keyword mnemonic has been used effectively by 4th graders (8 year olds). When pictures have been provided, it has been used effectively by 2nd graders. It is suggested that, for children 10 years and younger, instructions to visualize are supplemented by illustrating pictures.

McGivern 1981 (unpublished)

Finding: Children with greater vocabulary knowledge benefited more from generating their own keywords than being provided with them, whereas children with smaller vocabularies experienced comparable benefits from generated and provided keywords.

Levin JR 1981. The mnemonic ‘80’s: Keywords in the classroom. Educational Psychologist, 16, 65-82.

Finding: suggested that as it becomes more difficult to derive keywords, it is probable that provided keywords (rather than generated) would be more effective.

Levin, J.R., Shriberg, L.K., Miller, G.E., McCormack, C.B. & Levin, B.B. 1980. The keyword method in the classroom: How to remember the states and their capitals. The Elementary School Journal, 82, 185-91.

Finding: Studies of 2nd and 6th graders and adults have found providing pictures of interaction between the keyword and the word representing the meaning of foreign word leads to higher recall than having the person generate their own image. Keyword method successfully used with whole classrooms and small groups of elementary and junior high students. Has been employed by 8th graders to attach a persons name to a number of pieces of biographical info.

Johnson RE 1974.Abstractive processes in the remembering of prose. Journal of Educational Psychology, 66, 772-9.

Finding: the keyword method produces better results than those obtained by: (a) learning words in context (b) finding root words, and (c) learning synonyms and antonyms

Pressley M Levin J & Miller G 1982. The keyword method compared to alternative vocabulary-learning strategies. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 7, 213-26.

Finding: the keyword method produces better results than those obtained by: (d) presenting words in meaningful sentences (e) having students discriminate correct from incorrect use of words in sentences and (f) having students generate their own meaningful sentences.

Levin JR McCormick CB Miller GE Berry JK & Pressley M. 1982. Mnemonic versus nonmnemonic vocabulary-learning strategies for children. American Educational Research Journal, 19, 121-36.

Finding: successfully taught 4th graders abstract verbs (such as persuade, hesitate, object, glisten, resolve) using the keyword method. There were two steps: the child was asked to learn a keyword (word clue) for each word – keyword(s) were phonetically similar to a salient part or all of the word (e.g., purse for persuade; he’s a date for hesitate). Each pair of items (keyword and word to be learned) were presented on a card. After they had all been presented once, the child was shown cards with just the word on and asked to recall the keyword. If the child hesitated or gave the wrong answer, the card was immediately turned over and the keyword shown. The procedure was repeated twice. Most children were able to answer correctly after two trials. In step 2, the child was asked to learn the meaning of the 12 words. A colored line-drawing showing the keyword interacting with the definition of the word was presented; each card also had the word and its definition printed below the drawing (people in the drawing had dialogue balloons coming from their mouths – one character would mention the keyword, the other the word to be learned. The sentence was constructed so that the meaning of the word couldn’t be construed directly from sentence. The child was given 15 seconds to study the picture while the experimenter read the written material on the picture. It was found that children using this method remembered significantly more than children who used an alternative, instructionally sound method (82.8% vs 55%).

Levin, J.R., Shriberg, L.K., Miller, G.E., McCormack, C.B. & Levin, B.B. 1980. The keyword method in the classroom: How to remember the states and their capitals. The Elementary School Journal, 82, 185-91.

Finding: An adaptation of the keyword method was used to teach 4th and 5th graders the US states and their capitals. Step 1: the student formed an association between the name of the state and the keyword (e.g. marry for Maryland). Step 2: the student formed an association between the name of the capital and a different keyword (e.g., apple for Annapolis). The two keywords were then shown linked by a visual image (a line-drawing in which the two keyword referents were related, e.g. “The capital of Maryland is Annapolis. Here is a picture of two apples getting married”). When learning capitals, students were asked to recall the capital from the keyword, rather than the other way around, as they would ultimately be tested for recall of the capital for each state. Because backward keyword learning is more difficult, students were given up to five trials. They learned 12 capital-state pairs on the 1st day, and on 2nd day they were given 13 more, and told to learn them any way they wished. It appeared the students did not try to transfer the keyword method; the one student who did, did so ineffectively. This is not a surprising result, since they had been given the keywords and pictures, and hadn’t been taught how to produce them themselves. Results of the 1st day: those who learned using the keyword method recalled on average 78% correct vs 65.9% for those not trained in the keyword method. After two days, the keyword group remembered some 71.2%, while the nonmnemonic group's performance had fallen to 36.4%. Clearly the keyword method is of most benefit in retaining information.

Pressley M Levin J & Miller G 1981. How does the keyword method affect vocabulary comprehension and usage? Reading Research Quarterly, 16, 213-26.

Finding: suggested guidelines for using the keyword method with children: concrete stimulus support needed (especially for children 10 years and younger). Instructions to visualize may need to be supplemented by experimenter-provided illustrations etc.

Pressley & Levin 1978. Developmental constraints associated with children’s use of the keyword method of foreign language vocabulary learning. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 26, 359-72.

Finding: taught 2nd and 6th graders the keyword method to learn Spanish words. They found that the 2nd graders didn’t benefit when keywords and translations were presented verbally, but did when presented pictorially. The 6th graders were fine with both.

Levin JR Shriberg LK Miller GE McCormack CB & Levin BB 1980. The keyword method in the classroom: How to remember the states and their capitals. The Elementary School Journal, 82, 185-91.

Finding: taught 8th graders abstract attributes of towns (e.g., considerable wealth, abundant natural resources). Results indicated that pictures in which attributes were separately represented didn’t help recall. Recall was much better when the attributes were combined in a picture that incorporated the keyword.

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Kids with autism mimic ‘more efficiently’

We say so blithely that children learn by copying, but a recent study comparing autistic children and normally-developing ones shows there’s more to this than is obvious.

04/2013

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How early environment impacts cognitive development

February, 2012

Follow-up on an early child-care program for low-income children finds long-term benefits for education and employment. A large study pinpoints the advantages children from higher-income families have over those from low-middle families. Norway shows how extending compulsory education is linked to higher IQ.

Benefits of high quality child care persist 30 years later

Back in the 1970s, some 111 infants from low-income families, of whom 98% were African-American, took part in an early childhood education program called the Abecedarian Project. From infancy until they entered kindergarten, the children attended a full-time child care facility that operated year-round. The program provided educational activities designed to support their language, cognitive, social and emotional development.

The latest data from that project, following up the participants at age 30, has found that these people had significantly more years of education than peers who were part of a control group (13.5 years vs 12.3), and were four times more likely to have earned college degrees (23% vs 6%).

They were also significantly more likely to have been consistently employed (75% had worked full time for at least 16 of the previous 24 months, compared to 53% of the control group) and less likely to have used public assistance (only 4% received benefits for at least 10% of the previous seven years, compared to 20% of the control group). However, income-to-needs ratios (income taken into account household size) didn’t vary significantly between the groups (mainly because of the wide variability; on the face of it, the means are very different, but the standard deviation is huge), and neither did criminal involvement (27% vs 28%).

See their website for more about this project.

Evidence that more time at school raises IQ

It would be interesting to see what the IQs of those groups are, particularly given that maternal IQ was around 85 for both treatment and control groups. A recent report analyzed the results of a natural experiment that occurred in Norway when compulsory schooling was increased from seven to nine years in the 1960s, meaning that students couldn’t leave until 16 rather than 14. Because all men eligible for the draft were given an IQ test at age 19, statisticians were able to look back and see what effect the increased schooling had on IQ.

They found that it had a substantial effect, with each additional year raising the average IQ by 3.7 points.

While we can’t be sure how far these results extend to other circumstances, they are clear evidence that it is possible to improve IQ through education.

Why children of higher-income parents start school with an advantage

Of course the driving idea behind improved child-care in the early years is all about the importance of getting off to a good start, and you’d expect that providing such care to children would have a greater long-term effect on IQ than simply extending time at school. Most such interventions have looked at the most deprived strata of society. An overlooked area is that of low to middle income families, who are far from having the risk factors of less fortunate families.

A British study involving 15,000 five-year-olds has found that, at the start of school, children from low to middle income families are five months behind children from higher income families in terms of vocabulary skills and have more behavior problems (they were also 8 months ahead of their lowest income peers in vocabulary).

Low-middle income (LMI) households are defined by the Resolution Foundation (who funded this research) as members of the working-age population in income deciles 2-5 who receive less than one-fifth of their gross household income from means-tested benefits (see their website for more detail on this).

Now the difference in home environment between LMI and higher income households is often not that great — particularly when you consider that it is often a difference rooted in timing. LMI households are more common in this group of families with children under five, because the parents are usually at an early stage of life. So what brings about this measurable difference in language and behavior development?

This is a tricky thing to derive from the data, and the findings must be taken with a grain of salt. And as always, interpretation is even trickier. But with this caveat, let’s see what we have. Let’s look at demographics first.

The first thing is the importance of parental education. Income plus education accounted for some 70-80% of the differences in development, with education more important for language development and income more important for behavior development. Maternal age then accounted for a further 10%. Parents in the higher-income group tended to be older and have better education (e.g., 18% of LMI mothers were under 25 at the child’s birth, compared to 6% of higher-income mothers; 30% of LMI parents had a degree compared to 67% of higher-income parents).

Interestingly, family size was equally important for language development (10%), but much less important for behavior development (in fact this was a little better in larger families). Differences in ethnicity, language, or immigration status accounted for only a small fraction of the vocabulary gap, and none of the behavior gap.

Now for the more interesting but much trickier analysis of environmental variables. The most important factor was home learning environment, accounting for around 20% of the difference. Here the researchers point to higher-income parents providing more stimulation. For example, higher-income parents were more likely to read to their 3-year-olds every day (75% vs 62%; 48% for the lowest-income group), to take them to the library at least once a month (42% vs 35% vs 26%), to take their 5-year-old to a play or concert (86% vs 75% vs 60%), to a museum/gallery (67% vs 48% vs 36%), to a sporting activity at least once a week (76% vs 57% vs 35%). Higher-income parents were also much less likely to allow their 3-year-olds to watch more than 3 hours of TV a day (7% vs 17% vs 25%). (I know the thrust of this research is the comparison between LMI and higher income, but I’ve thrown in the lowest-income figures to help provide context.)

Interestingly, the most important factor for vocabulary learning was being taken to a museum/gallery at age 5 (but remember, these correlations could go either way: it might well be that parents are more likely to take an articulate 5-year-old to such a place), with the second most important factor being reading to 3-year-old every day. These two factors accounted for most of the effects of home environment. For behavior, the most important factor was regular sport, followed by being to a play/concert, and being taken to a museum/gallery. Watching more than 3 hours of TV at age 3 did have a significant effect on both vocabulary and behavior development (a negative effect on vocabulary and a positive effect on behavior), while the same amount of TV at age 5 did not.

Differences in parenting style explained 10% of the vocabulary gap and 14% of the behavior gap, although such differences were generally small. The biggest contributors to the vocabulary gap were mother-child interaction score at age 3 and regular bedtimes at age 3. The biggest contributors to the behavior gap were regular bedtimes at age 5, regular mealtimes at age 3, child smacked at least once a month at age 5 (this factor also had a small but significant negative effect on vocabulary), and child put in timeout at least once a month at age 5.

Maternal well-being accounted for over a quarter of the behavior gap, but only a small proportion of the vocabulary gap (2% — almost all of this relates to social support score at 9 months). Half of the maternal well-being component of the behavior gap was down to psychological distress at age 5 (very much larger than the effect of psychological distress at age 3). Similarly, child and maternal health were important for behavior (18% in total), but not for vocabulary.

Material possessions, on the other hand, accounted for some 9% of the vocabulary gap, but none of the behavior gap. The most important factors here were no internet at home at age 5 (22% of LMIs vs 8% of higher-incomes), and no access to a car at age 3 (5% of LMIs had no car vs 1% of higher incomes).

As I’ve intimated, it’s hard to believe we can disentangle individual variables in the environment in an observational study, but the researchers believe the number of variables in the mix (158) and the different time points (many variables are assessed at two or more points) provided a good base for analysis.

Reference: 

[2676] Campbell FA, Pungello EP, Burchinal M, Kainz K, Pan Y, Wasik BH, Barbarin OA, Sparling JJ, Ramey CT. Adult outcomes as a function of an early childhood educational program: An Abecedarian Project follow-up. Developmental Psychology;Developmental Psychology. 2012 :No Pagination Specified - No Pagination Specified.

[2675] Brinch CN, Galloway TA. Schooling in adolescence raises IQ scores. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Internet]. 2012 ;109(2):425 - 430. Available from: http://www.pnas.org/content/109/2/425.abstract

Washbrook, E., & Waldfogel, J. (2011). On your marks : Measuring the school readiness of children in low-to-middle income families. Resolution Foundation, December 2011.

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Gender gap in spatial ability can be reduced through training

October, 2010

Male superiority in mental rotation is the most-cited gender difference in cognitive abilities. A new study shows that the difference can be eliminated in 6-year-olds after a mere 8 weeks.

Following a monkey study that found training in spatial memory could raise females to the level of males, and human studies suggesting the video games might help reduce gender differences in spatial processing (see below for these), a new study shows that training in spatial skills can eliminate the gender difference in young children. Spatial ability, along with verbal skills, is one of the two most-cited cognitive differences between the sexes, for the reason that these two appear to be the most robust.

This latest study involved 116 first graders, half of whom were put in a training program that focused on expanding working memory, perceiving spatial information as a whole rather than concentrating on details, and thinking about spatial geometric pictures from different points of view. The other children took part in a substitute training program, as a control group. Initial gender differences in spatial ability disappeared for those who had been in the spatial training group after only eight weekly sessions.

Previously:

A study of 90 adult rhesus monkeys found young-adult males had better spatial memory than females, but peaked early. By old age, male and female monkeys had about the same performance. This finding is consistent with reports suggesting that men show greater age-related cognitive decline relative to women. A second study of 22 rhesus monkeys showed that in young adulthood, simple spatial-memory training did not help males but dramatically helped females, raising their performance to the level of young-adult males and wiping out the gender gap.

Another study showing that expert video gamers have improved mental rotation skills, visual and spatial memory, and multitasking skills has led researchers to conclude that training with video games may serve to reduce gender differences in visual and spatial processing, and some of the cognitive declines that come with aging.

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