Brain Sciences


Emotional words are easier for young children to learn

20 August 2020

Abstract words associated with either positive or negative emotions, such as insight or tyranny, are easier to learn than neutral ones, for children up the age of nine, finds a new UCL-led study.

toddler and mother

The findings clarify that the emotional content of words themselves, rather than teaching strategies using emotional cues, makes learning easier, in the study published in Developmental Psychology

Lead author Dr Marta Ponari, who began the study at UCL before moving to the University of Kent, said: “The ability to grasp and connect with abstract ideas is a fundamental element of learning, and it’s crucial for effective social communication. 

“It’s important to help children learn abstract words early on, and the more we know about how they learn, the more effectively we can teach them.” 

A previous study by the same authors found that children up to age nine (but not older) can better understand and recognise abstract words with emotional connotations, but the findings were based on what children already know rather than on how they learn. The new study helps to clarify whether this advantage is due to the emotional valence (positive or negative) of the word itself, or the fact that words are learned in an emotional context. 

“Children can more easily learn words that are grounded in experience – so concrete words such as table, or green, are easier to learn. We have extended this to show that even among abstract words, being able to ground a new word in a familiar experience, that of emotions, can make a word easier to learn,” Dr Ponari explained. 

For the study, 76 children aged seven to 10 were taught words that were negative like tyranny or crude, positive like insight or tactic, or neutral like premise or output. They were taught either with a teaching strategy that emphasised emotional information, or with a focus on encyclopaedic information (which still enabled the children to pick up the emotional meaning by the words’ definitions). Only the linguistic context was changed, rather than whether the teachers were emotionally expressive. 

The researchers found children up to the age of nine learned the emotional words more easily, regardless of teaching strategy. 

Co-author Professor Gabriella Vigliocco (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences) commented: “Beyond age eight or nine, children can more readily learn abstract words that lack positive or negative emotional meanings. This corresponds with children’s emotional development, as younger children are only able to describe emotions as good or bad, without further complexity.” 

Co-author Professor Courtenay Norbury (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences) added: “Understanding when children are able to learn different words could help parents and teachers best support them in their learning and emotional development.” 

The study was supported by the Nuffield Foundation.