What Is the Shape Bias?

The shape bias means that the shapes of objects provide more information about their functions than the colors, textures, materials, size, or other factors. Think of various cups or chairs – it is not the colors or materials of the objects that provide the important information about how they are used. Instead, it is their shapes. Over time, your baby will learn to categorize objects based more on their shapes than the other factors1, 2, 3, but learning this while your baby’s brain is developing rapidly could be very beneficial in part because your baby could learn words more efficiently for a greater proportion of his window of opportunity for learning language.

Children typically go through a long period of time where they sort or categorize objects in inefficient manners (such as sorting objects more by their colors). This generally leads to learning receptive language (or understanding spoken language) at a slower speed compared to sorting objects more by their shapes. Parents may slow down the process by highlighting the colors of objects if they frequently sort objects by color more than they sort by shape. Over time, your child will eventually learn to categorize objects based on their shapes because the shapes of so many objects are more relevant.

Initially, children typically have a weaker shape bias and it generally strengthens around age 3 years old. However, there is research showing that 17-month-old babies can be taught the shape bias in 4 15-minute sessions in a laboratory setting and after babies are taught the shape bias then the rate of word learning increases.

Why Is This Milestone Important?

For children who already know the shape bias, then the child may learn the first word very quickly. For young babies who do not know the shape bias, then learning the first written word may take a very long time. Just as it is with spoken language, learning the first written word may be the hardest to learn for infants. That is because by definition babies must learn the shape bias in order to differentiate the written words. The shape bias is a very important concept for babies to learn. Research shows that babies learn new vocabulary at faster rates as soon as they are taught this concept, therefore the benefits of teaching your baby the shape bias early could be very large.

If you consistently allow your baby to see language in addition to hearing it, then it is possible that learning written language can parallel learning spoken language during infancy. With spoken language the first words take a very long time to learn, then the speed of learn increases rapidly.

When babies see words in addition to hearing them, they have more information that they can use to determine when the words start and end. Babies need to learn that individual words exist, and seeing and hearing the words simultaneously could help them learn this concept more easily than simply hearing words. It can be difficult to determine this information when listening to sentences, where words often flow together. Having visual and auditory language information is also helpful when determining if words are the same or different (for example, with words that sound similar but look distinct). Babies who are allowed to see and hear words have additional information compared to babies who only hear words—which should help them learn words faster. In fact, studies of Your Baby Can Learn (YBCL) show that babies who consistently used YBCL learned additional vocabulary compared to control groups who did not use the series.

Babies who are allowed to see and hear words have additional information compared to babies who only hear words—which should help them learn words faster.

Babies can learn patterns of language. When you talk to your baby and demonstrate the meanings of words, new synapses form in your child’s brain. By repeating the same words over and over to your baby, these connections get stronger until eventually your baby memorizes a word from its sound.1 The same type of learning is likely happening when learning written language. The baby initially memorizes the word from how it looks. With spoken language it has been shown that by 8 months2, babies are not only memorizing the individual words, but also learning language patterns. In other words, babies are learning syntax and grammar at the same time they are memorizing, or learning, the sounds of individual words.

How Long Will It Take?

There are many long-term advantages of learning to read early4, 5, 6, 7, 8. Knowing these long-term benefits may help keep you motivated to help your child learn written language earlier than is currently typical. I presented a study at the International Conference on Infant Studies in 1998 that found 2- and 3-year-old children can begin recognizing words statistically above chance after about 5 minutes of seeing a small number of words­­­­9. I also presented a case study that found a young baby may take 6 months or more to learn her first written words10 which is similar to how long it may take babies to learn spoken words.


How to Teach It:
  1. In order to teach your child his first written word, consistently allow your baby to see and hear words instead of only hearing them. Point to written words from left to right as you say them, then demonstrate the meanings of the words. Repeat this activity many times throughout the day, even if it is just for a few minutes at a time. Remember that just like it takes a newborn many months of hearing words before learning to understand them, it should take most young infants many months of seeing and hearing words before learning to recognize them. Older babies and preschoolers can often learn their first written words very quickly.
  2. Start with a fairly large number of words—around 20—so your child can also begin to learn a general pattern of what English words look like while also learning her first written word. Babies should see some words more than others. In the first YBCL video, some words are repeated much more frequently than others. These high-frequency words (such as clap, wave, and mouth) are also shown on YBCL word cards and they are highlighted in our books in order to help your child learn the first written word. Some of the words you select should be short words and some should be longer, and most of these first words should follow phonetic patterns.
  3. Begin asking recognition questions related to words. Hold up two words as shown in the image and ask your child, “Which word says clap?” More details about how to do this are in the next milestone.
  4. Teach the shape bias while playing with your baby.
      • Primarily sort toys and other objects by shape. Play games where you sort objects by their shapes. For instance, you can use a variety of cups, spoons, shirts, and socks. Try to find these objects in many different colors and various materials and sizes, so that the shape provides the most important information. My daughters enjoyed it when they got to place the objects in the area for that category as shown here.
    Arrange objects by shape.
    Arrange objects by shape. In this image, the shirts, spoons, socks, and cups are arranged by shape rather than other attributes such as color or texture.
    • You can sort toys and other objects by color, texture, size, and material, but not as frequently as you sort by shape. The reason for this is because the shapes of objects typically give more information about which category they are a member of than other object features and learning how to sort objects by their shapes will help your baby learn the shape bias.
    • Talk more about the shapes of objects and how that gives you information about the objects. For instance, when playing with a ball you can point out that it is round and that allows the ball to roll or bounce. You can point out objects of the same color that are not round and show that they don’t roll or bounce. You can do this with most objects if you think about it for a bit. For example, the shape of a plate – generally being flat on the bottom allows it to be placed on tables (and be stable). If it has a ridge on the top, that can help keep food on the plate. Mention this shape information when using plates and many other objects.
    • Teach written language by systematically varying the fonts, sizes, font colors, and background colors of the words. We do this with our products to help the babies learn that there are generalizable shapes for words just like there are generalizable shapes for cups, spoons, socks, shirts, and other objects. We have varied the written words in our videos in this manner since 1997 and we continue to add new ways of teaching this important milestone.

Begin teaching Milestone 2 after one week even if you do not know if your child has learned the first written word. Milestone 2 clearly outlines many guidelines to teach written language. If you have a young baby, you likely will not know the precise moment your child recognizes her first written word because it could be difficult for your child to communicate this information. You can do simple recognition tests once your baby is somewhere around 8 months of age or older by holding up two words and asking him to look at one of the words. For example, you could hold up the words clap and waving with each word about the same distance from your baby and ask him to look (or point if your child can point) at the word clap. These types of tests are explained in more detail later. Regardless of your child’s age or ability, please read Milestone 2 as soon as you can where the guidelines for how to teach written words are detailed.



1 Gershkoff-Stowe, L. & Smith, L.B., (2004). Shape and the first hundred nouns. Child Development, Vol. 74.

2 Landau, B., Smith, L.B., & Jones, S.S., (1988). The importance of shape in early lexical learning. Cognitive Development, 3.

3 Smith, L.B. (2000). Learning how to learn words: An associative crane. In Becoming a Word Learner: A Debate on Lexical Acquisition, R.M. Golinkoff, et al., eds. New York: Oxford University Press.

4 Durkin, D. (1966). The Achievement of Pre-School Readers: Two Longitudinal Studies. Reading Research Quarterly, 1(4), 5-36.

5 Ritchie, S. J. & Bates, T. C., (2013). Enduring Links From Childhood Mathematics and Reading Achievement to Adult Socioeconomic Status. Psychological Science.

6 Duncan, G. J., Dowsett, C. J., Claessens, A., Magnuson, K., Huston, A. C., Klebanov, P., et al. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology, 43, 1428–1446.

7 Hanson, R. A., and D. Farrell, 1995. The long-term effects on high school seniors of learning to read in kindergarten. Reading Research Quarterly 30(4), 908–933.

8 Sénéchal, M., & LeFevre, J. A., (2003). Parental Involvement in the Development of Children’s Reading Skill: A Five-Year Longitudinal Study. Child Development, 73(2), 445–460.

9 Titzer, R. (1998, April). Evidence that 2- and 3-Year-Old Babies and Toddlers Can Visually Discriminate Written Words. Presented at the International Conference on Infant Studies. Atlanta, Georgia.

10 Titzer, R. (1998, April). Case Study of an Infant Exposed to Written Language. Presented at the International Conference on Infant Studies. Atlanta, Georgia.


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