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Want Your Toddler to Learn New Words? Turn Off the TV and Reduce Background Noise
  • Before he learns to read, your toddler will first learn new words by hearing them from you. By speaking or reading aloud to him, he becomes aware of the sounds she hears in words, and it's a good start in building her vocabulary and developing her listening skills. And as it turns out, the quieter the environment, the better she can learn new words.

    Research has found that background noise in the home, like using TVs, radios, electronic gadgets, and toys, and activities like playing and talking, can have negative effects on toddlers and their ability to learn. The study, which was published in the journal Child Development in 2016, investigated how background noise can affect a toddler’s ability to learn new words and their meanings. The study was led by Dr. Brianna McMillan, who, at the time, was a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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    A news release on the website of the university detailed the methodology of the study, which involved a total of 106 toddlers between ages 22 and 30 months taking part in three experiments. In the first experiment, 40 toddlers between ages 22 and 24 months were taught new words with either loud or quiet recordings playing in the background. The recording sounded like two people speaking at once. The researchers discovered that only the toddlers exposed to quieter background noise were successful in learning those new words.

    In the second experiment, older toddlers between 28 and 30 months were taught new words with similar recordings playing in the background. Again, the researchers found that the toddlers who heard quieter background noise were able to learn the words successfully.


    Finally, in the third experiment, 26 older toddlers were exposed to two words in a quiet environment. They were then taught the meanings of four words (two which they had just been taught and two new ones) in a noisy environment. The researchers found that the children were able to learn the words and their meanings only when they had first been given that information in a quiet environment. These results suggest “that experience with the sounds of the words without distracting background noise helps children subsequently map those sounds to meaning.”

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    The study found that, indeed, loud background speech can impede a child’s ability to learn new things. However, it also pointed out that environmental cues can help children overcome that difficulty, especially because it is virtually impossible to eliminate background noise from a child’s environment.

    “Hearing new words in fluent speech without a lot of background noise before trying to learn what objects the new words corresponded to may help very young children master new vocabulary,” said Jenny Saffran, a professor of psychology at the College of Letters & Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who was co-author of the study. “But when the environment is noisy, drawing young children’s attention to the sounds of the new word may help them compensate.”

    McMillan also stated, “Learning words is an important skill that provides a foundation for children’s ability to achieve academically. Modern homes are filled with noisy distractions such as TV, radio, and people talking that could affect how children learn words at early ages. Our study suggests that adults should be aware of the amount of background speech in the environment when they’re interacting with young children.”

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    Keep noise to a minimum

    Your child's brain develops rapidly during early childhood. "Although the brain continues to develop and change into adulthood, the first eight years can build a foundation for future learning, health, and life success," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

    During the first years of a child’s life, he depends largely on his parents and the people in his immediate surroundings to serve as his first teachers to help him develop the skills he will need later on. This means that parents and guardians have the responsibility to not only ensure that the child has access to diverse learning opportunities, but also that he is in a safe environment where he can learn best. This could mean an environment where he is free from too much noise which can impede his learning ability, just like what the study above teaches us.

    Again, it is impossible to completely take away noise from a child’s environment: Families need to talk to one another. The TV and the radio are constant parts of everyday life. Now and then, kids might be exposed to TV programs, mobile apps, or toys that make interesting sounds.

    So what can we do now? Like what McMillan suggested, parents are encouraged to stay aware of the amount of background noise their children are exposed to. It is also important for parents to know when to give their kids the chance to learn new knowledge — in this case, new vocabulary — in an environment where there is not much noise to distract them. This is especially important because a limited vocabulary can cause problems later in life.


    “We already know that when they get to school, children who have a weaker vocabulary don’t necessarily catch up,” Rochelle Newman, a professor of speech sciences at the University of Maryland who was not involved in the study, told STAT.

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    Start by lessening the amount of time you leave your TV on at home. This is a great way to also limit your child’s screen time, considering that the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends zero screen time for babies under a year old and only 1 hour of screen time a day for children between ages 2 and 4 years. Putting away smartphones and mobile phones in favor of one-on-one interaction is also a simple way to reduce the amount of unnecessary noise your little one is exposed to.

    When it comes to toys, you might be better off selecting ones that don’t make noise, so that you can speak and interact with him during playtime. This is a great way to hone your tot’s language skills. Age-appropriate developmental toys are great options, as these will also aid in your child’s overall growth and learning.

    The bottom line is that while there is nothing wrong with placing your child in noisier environments occasionally, it is important to also prioritize opportunities for distraction-free learning.

    As Newman noted, “It’s not that everything needs to be in quiet, but that at least some of the day the children should have an opportunity to hear language where there aren’t lots other sounds in the background,” whether those sounds come from the TV, the radio, toys, or other members of the family.

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