Skip to main content
University of Wisconsin–Madison

From Simple Words to Complex Ideas: Understanding the Role of Language in Learning

Children from different backgrounds have vastly different experience with language. Research shows that by age 3, children from poorer and less educated families hear 30 million fewer words than children from families of higher socio-economic status, and the effects on the size of their own vocabularies are apparent in children younger than 2. Vocabulary size at only 24 months of age predicts both behavior and academic performance—in reading and even more strongly in math—when kids enter kindergarten.

In response, dozens of large-scale programs have been launched around the country trying to increase the vocabulary of young children. And yet, no one knows why childhood vocabulary is predictive of later academic success.

We believe that the answer lies in viewing language not simply as a communicative system, but a system that allows humans to form more effective conceptual categories. Our work will investigate whether words, by serving as compact and efficient hypotheses, enable children to better learn new concepts. In a very real sense, learning words may help us learn.

We seek to explain why language skills are so predictive of academic success, because understanding the responsible mechanism will in turn boost academic performance by supporting far more effective interventions for children who lag behind.

Principal Investigator

  • Gary Lupyan
    Associate professor

Co-Principal Investigators

  • Haley Vlach
    Assistant professor
    Educational Psychology
  • Heather Kirkorian
    Assistant professor
    Human Development and Family Studies