What can COVID 19 teach us about learning vocabulary?


by Juliet Leonard
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As a Speech and Language Therapist, I am always intrigued to find out how children learn new words. 

The COVID 19 pandemic has forced us all to learn a whole new, topic-based vocabulary. Who knew we would understand and be readily using words and phrases like “social distancing” “coronavirus” “hand sanitiser” and “lateral flow”?

I have been particularly intrigued by how well children have learned this new vocabulary. Even at the early stages of the pandemic, most children appeared to quickly familiarise themselves with these new words and ideas and use them in conversation. How did these words ‘stick’? – and what can we learn from it?

There are 5 key themes that have been prevalent during this pandemic, in supporting the understanding and development of this new vocabulary:

Exposure: Covid related words have been used by parents, schools, the media, in shops and pretty much everywhere a child goes. They have been written, spoken and used in pictures and diagrams.

Interest: Covid is the cause of school closures, the cancelled football or swimming session, the reason that grandparents can’t visit, and friends can’t come for sleepovers. Children are constantly being given this vocabulary because it has affected so many aspects of their lives. The answer to so many of their ‘why’ questions will be linked to this vocabulary.

Frequency: Children are hearing this message repeatedly: As a reminder to keep safe, to maintain hygiene, to distance; they have been emersed in this vocabulary.

Context: Parents and schools have gone to great effort to explain the cause of unexpected changes; to talk through this with children and to ensure that they have understood what the words mean within the context of their own lives.

Visuals: We all know what the virus looks like; we have a better idea of what 2 metres is and we know the icon that tells us to wear a mask. Covid has been explained in words and pictures, enabling children to understand the principles, whatever their learning preference is

These five key themes have been a winning combination for vocabulary learning. Just imagine how successful vocabulary learning could be, if these principles were always followed…