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See Inside May / June 2011

Why Johnny Can't Name His Colors

The way we commonly use color and number words in English makes it unnecessarily difficult for kids to learn the concepts



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Subject 046M, two years old, was seated nervously across from me at the table, his hands clasped tightly together in his lap. He appeared to have caught an incurable case of the squirms. I resisted the urge to laugh and leaned forward, whispering conspiratorially. “Today we’re going to play a game with Mr. Moo.” I produced an inviting plush cow from behind my back. “Can you say hi to Mr. Moo?”

At the Stanford University lab in which I work with cognitive scientist Michael Ramscar, we study how children go about what is arguably the most vital project in their schooling—learning language. Over the past several years we have been particularly taken with the question of how kids learn a small but telling piece of that vast complex: color words. We want to know how much they know, when they know it and whether we can help them get there faster.

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