Here’s how your child’s brain stores new words

Here’s how your child’s brain stores new words

Ever wondered where words go once they enter the brain? How and where are they stored? Let's find out.

Research in cognitive linguistics suggests that words are stored in the brain in groups, and that links between a newly acquired word and other relevant, already familiar ones, assist in the process of word acquisition. Learning and remember a word, in other words.

We know that there are links between words in the brain because experimental evidence shows that exposure to one word makes the response to another related word much faster, without any conscious guidance having taken place. For example, experiments have shown that when participants are presented with the word ‘doctor’, the word ‘nurse’ is found to be activated in their brain. Similarly, the word ‘bride’ activates ‘groom’ and so on and so forth. The evidence that exposure to one word automatically activates other words related to it suggests that words are connected in the brain forming networks (Moreno & van Orden 2001).

There’s also experimental evidence indicating that words are categorised around prototypicality. This means that when we hear the word ‘furniture’, the word ‘chair’, a prototypical member of this category, is more likely to be activated than the word ‘lamp’. Similarly, when we hear the word ‘bird’, the word ‘robin’ is more likely to be activated than ‘penguin’, and so on and so forth (Rosch 1975; Taylor 2003). Notice that links based on relevance and on prototypicality are not mutually exclusive, as every given word is likely to be linked with numerous other words for different reasons, forming a complex network.

Given the evidence that words form networks, learning language in context is an important factor for vocabulary acquisition, exactly because it contributes to the understanding of the relationships between words. There’s also evidence that items stored in non-lexical memory such as images, smells and other information perceivable with our senses becomes associated with particular words and enriches our lexical memory (Devitto and Burges 2004) .

Mrs Wordsmith’s materials are built on the idea that words are neither used, learnt, nor stored in isolation, but in association with other relevant words. This is why our words are presented in groups. They are also built on the idea that linguistic information and contextual experience interact in the acquisition of a new word which is why we accompany words with illustrations and stories.


Devitto, Z. & Burgess C. 2004. ‘Theoretical and methodological implications of language experience and vocabulary skill: Priming of strongly and weakly associated words’. Brain and Cognition. 55: 295-299.

Moreno, M. A. & van Orden, G. C. 2001. ‘Cognitive psychology of word recognition.’ In Smelser, N. J. and Baltes, B. P. (eds). International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Amsterdam: Elsevier. 16556-61.

Rosch, E. 1975. ‘Cognitive representation of semantic categories’. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 104(3): 192-233.

Taylor, J. 2003. Linguistic Categorization. Third Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.