Towards a precision science of word learning: Understanding individual vocabulary pathways

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Toddlers vary widely in the rate at which they develop vocabulary. This variation predicts later language development and school success at the group level; however, we cannot determine which children with slower vocabulary development in the second year will continue to have difficulty. In this article, I argue that this is because we lack theoretical understanding of how multiple processes operate as a system to create individual children’s pathways to word learning. I discuss the difficulties children face when learning even a single concrete noun, the multiple general cognitive processes that support word learning, and some evidence of rapid development in the second year. I present work toward a formal model of the word learning system and how this system changes over time. The long-term goal of this work is to understand how individual children’s strengths and weaknesses create unique vocabulary pathways, and to enable us to predict outcomes and identify effective interventions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)117-124
Number of pages8
JournalChild Development Perspectives
Issue number2
Early online date6 May 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2021


  • formal models
  • individual differences
  • word learning

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