The shape bias is the tendency of infants and children (as well as adults) to generalize information about an object by its shape, rather than its color, material, or texture when learning nouns. Learning the shape bias can result in an increase in the vocabularies of infants and children (Smith, 2000; Landau, Smith, & Jones, 1988). Infants or children who have learned the shape bias tend to learn words at a faster rate than infants and children who have not learned the shape bias. The shape bias can be learned, and is displayed when a child consistently organizes objects by their shapes instead of by color or other often-trivial features of the objects.

How do I teach the shape bias?

The Infant Learning Company has some word cards that are designed to teach the shape bias. These word cards include Shape Bias Language Cards, Teaching Cards, and Milestone Cards. Please click on the links to learn more information about these different products.

You can also do many sorting activities where you organize objects or words based on their shapes.

For example, put many different cups, plates, and spoons in a large opaque (non-transparent) container out of your baby’s view. The cups should vary in color, size, material, and design. The plates and spoons should also vary greatly in many ways, but the spoons, plates, and cups should have similar shapes. Quickly take one object at a time out of the large container and name it. For example, say “This is a metal spoon. We will put all of the spoons in this area. This is a black cup. The cups will go here. This is blue plastic spoon. It goes here with the metal spoon. This is a red plate. We will put the plates here. This is a little blue plate. It goes with the first plate. This is a metal spoon. It goes with the spoons. This is a white plastic spoon. It goes with the spoons. This is a white plastic plate. It goes with the plates.” Continue sorting these objects. I recommend using color, size, and material adjectives so your baby sees these factors are less important for sorting. The next time you could use socks, t-shirts, and jeans, or other objects.

Babies who have memorized many written words using our program have done so by learning that the shape was more important than the color, background color, specific font, size, or other factor. Our Your Baby Can Learn videos intentionally vary the fonts, font colors, and background colors and while keeping the generalizable shapes of the words the same. Just as cups, chairs, or other objects do not only have one specific shape, words also have slightly different shapes. We vary the fonts so the children can learn the generalizable shapes, which should also make it easier for them to recognize the same words in new fonts or new contexts.

Learning and strengthening the shape bias is very important. Babies who have a stronger shape bias learn words faster than babies who have a weaker shape bias. Parents often categorize objects by their colors (or texture, size, or material), which can slow down the learning of the shape bias if parents don’t also focus on sorting by shape. Until your baby’s shape bias is relatively strong, it is better to sort objects by their shapes more than you sort objects by their colors. This does not mean not to sort by color, texture, size, or material. Instead, I am recommending to sort objects by their shapes more than you sort them by more trivial object features.

Sort images by shape rather than color or other features to help teach the shape bias.

Landau, B., Smith, L.B., & Jones, S.S. (1988). The importance of shape in early lexical learning. Cognitive Development, 3, 299–321.

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


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