VOLUME 21 #4

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Jennifer Zosh plays with her daughter
Photos by Risa (Pitman) Page, AS04, Penn State Brandywine

Learning language is play on words

ALUMNI | It seems that Jennifer Zosh, AS03, was destined to study the development of young children. As a teenager, she babysat and played school with them, always marveling at the spark she could see in their eyes when something clicked.

While picking classes as a psychology major at UD, Zosh took a child development class alongside a “risky” class she knew nothing about, Introduction to Cognitive Science, just to try something completely new. Though she didn’t realize it at the time, the courses would shape her future.

The research she conducted for those classes inspired her to combine the two fields and begin investigating early cognitive development. She went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in psychological and brain sciences from Johns Hopkins University.

Advice for parents:
Take a deep breath

Every single day, children are learning plenty of new words—all on their own! You don’t need to invest in flashcards or the latest app or drill your child on vocabulary. Instead, everyday fun experiences, from reading books to singing silly songs, will help your child quickly go from saying “Dada” to knowing thousands of new words in only a few short years.

Here are some ideas for fun activities.

Set up your own “word challenge.” Put out an object for which your child already knows the label alongside something new. Now, ask your child to give you the unfamiliar object, and see if he or she uses the process of elimination to figure out the answer. After about 14 months, children start to use this “smart” way of learning about the world – all by themselves. They don’t do it every time, but as they get better at it, you can increase the number of familiar objects you display. Sometimes, the harder kids work for an answer, the more they remember.

Next time you read a book with your children, look at the illustrations for objects that you might not have at home. Ask them to imagine what the object does and where you might find it. Then, you can tell them what the object is called and what it really does. Learning is about more than just a name—and you can’t get this information from a flash card.

Engage in some kid humor. Playing with words—you know, that silly Sponge Bob Circle Pants—helps build your child’s vocabulary and lets you both have a laugh at the same time.

Read, read, read. Start a reading tradition. Even from a young age, encourage your children to select the books they want to read during story time. Over the years, you will find that your child starts to take a more active role, building emergent literacy skills and preparing for a lifetime love of reading.

Now, as the director of the Brandywine Child Development Lab at Penn State Brandywine, she is able to explore her primary interest—studying the way young children develop and learn about the world around them.

“I have been continually impressed at the way infants begin life with little control, no understanding of language, no relationships and no instruction manual and yet quickly become walking, talking, loving and hilarious little beings,” Zosh says.

At UD, she worked with Roberta Golinkoff, now H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Education as well as a professor of linguistics and cognitive science and of psychology, at the Infant Language Project, where she learned how to conduct research and began to evaluate how children learn language.

At Hopkins, one of Zosh’s projects investigated the way toddlers learn new words. Working with one of her advisers, Justin Halberda, and a then-undergraduate, Meredith Brinster, they concluded that young children are better able to retain words when they “figure it out for themselves” rather than when they are explicitly told. Their findings were announced on major news outlets, including Yahoo News, NBC Science News, Huffington Post and Fox.

“The Internet is full of so much information—and so much inaccurate information—that it was great to be able to contribute scientifically based information about word learning that made it directly into the hands of parents,” Zosh says.

She continues to collaborate with Golinkoff and others on research examining how socio-economic status may affect young children’s ability to estimate large numbers of objects, a skill important to math achievement. If a connection is found, the researchers hope that subsequent interventions could have long-term positive implications for disadvantaged children.

Zosh is also involved with Golinkoff on the annual Ultimate Block Party, which highlights the importance of play to a child’s physical, cognitive, social and emotional development and helps bring research from the lab directly into the hands of the public.

With so many initiatives under way, there is no “average day” for Zosh, who divides her time between the lab and classroom. In both cases, she calls working with undergraduates “some of the most fulfilling moments” she experiences.

“I think that partly this is because it reminds me of my own joy at being a part of the scientific process and experiencing the thrill of discovery when I was an undergraduate at UD,” she says.

Article by Robert Bartley, AS13

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