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Labels’ Effect in Children’s Category Learning


The present article, written by three scholars specializing in psychology, is devoted to the effect, which labels have on children’s category learning. The research was supported by several grants. The central problem of the research is the nature of the label’s effect: while some argue that labeling facilitates a child’s learning, especially when it comes to categorization, others claim that labels are obstacles that interfere into the learning process and makes it slower. It is the second opinion that the authors present; they are trying to support with evidence.

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To produce the evidence, the scholars conducted two experiments, involving several groups of 4-year-old children from middle-class suburban families as participants. In both experiments, children were divided into two groups: to one of them the labels were presented, and the other one heard silence instead. In the first experiment, children had to assign two types of flowers to certain creatures that ate these plants. In the second one, they had to name a particular type when shown this flower. As a result, the group in label condition demonstrated lower results in learning than the group in silent condition. The authors conclude that labels hinder the learning process.


It is known that language strongly affects a person’s perception (Huettig, Rommers, & Meyer, 2011, p. 3-4). However, the problem of the effect of a link between language and the understanding of the surrounding world is debated among scholars: this effect is either positive or negative. According to one point of view, labeling makes categorization easier for the learners since they make common features more obvious (Brooks & Kempe, 2014, p. 306; Lupyan, Rakison, & McClelland, 2007). The researchers that support another point of view claim that labels interfere in the learning process and presents an obstacle to the learners, making them learn less quickly (Robinson, C.W., West, C.A., Deng, W., & Sloutsky, V.M., 2012). This problem is especially significant for the studies in child psychology since it is childhood when cognitive development starts.


The authors of the given article conducted two experiments, for which they used two respective methods. In Experiment one, they formed a group of twenty preschool children (aged 4) and asked them to play a game where they had to feed different creatures with different kinds of flowers. While for one group the flowers were categorized by the experimenter, the other one was left without categorizations. For Experiment 2, the researchers asked fifteen preschool children (aged 4) to play a game where they had to learn two different flower types. After that, they were asked to name a particular type when shown this flower visually. The aim of the authors was to find out whether labeling facilitates or complicates the learning process (Best, Robinson, & Sloutsky, 2011, p. 3333-3335).

To my opinion, the method is not very clear and is rather unambiguous, even though the method consistent with a 4-year-old child’s level of cognitive development. In Experiment 1, the authors claim that the group of children, which was notified of the names of the flowers, made less progress in learning than the group, to which the labels were not introduced. However, it is unclear what relation there should be between the names of the flowers and their purpose (being food to a certain type of creatures). As I suppose, this may have been the unnecessary information that presented an obstacle to children’s learning. The authors should have found another method to make a study group deal with labels. The methodological approach and the design employed by the authors is not quite suitable for the task. It is necessary to employ a slightly different design, in which labels will be something that would not merely distract the learners rather than useless information.

Apart from that, there are some objections to the study group. The authors make conclusions about “children’s learning,” but the study group is very narrow. According to Haslam and McGarty, “variability in responses means that psychological measurement normally involves taking large samples of observations from a population to reduce uncertainty about the conclusions we should draw” (2014, p. 39). From the whole child population, the authors take only 4-year-olds and only from the middle class. The choice of such a study group ignores the fact that the specificities of perception may be affected by the conditions, in which a child is raised (which may be different in disadvantaged families), culture, to which a child belongs (which is not mentioned), etc.


To find out whether labels facilitated children’s learning or otherwise, the authors compared means accuracy for both experiments (Experiment 1 and Experiment 2). According to them, during Experiment 1, the children, who heard silence instead of categories, seriously improved their accuracy of responses from the first part of the experiment to the second one. Additionally, they demonstrated their ability to learn more categories if exposed to more examples. In contrast, the children, who heard the names of the categories, did not demonstrate an increase in learning from one experiment to another. The authors also add that the children in silent condition demonstrated only slight accuracy above the chance performance, but the children in label condition did not present even a slightest increase. The results of Experiment 2 generally supported those of Experiment 1, proving that the children in label condition did not learn better than those in silent condition (Best et al., 2011, p. 3333-3335).

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Because of the mentioned inconsistencies, the results section is unclear as well. Since the tests, as it was already said, contain a flaw, it makes the analysis rather ambiguous. The experimenter did not clarify whether labeling helps or hinders the learning process. The outcome raises the following questions. First, whether the results will differ significantly if the test were improved, i.e. whether the children in label condition would present better results. Second, whether the outcomes would be completely different if the study group was more broad and diverse. To answer these questions, it is necessary to conduct another experiment with a more sophisticated test (or tests) and a broader study group.


In the general discussion part, the authors claim that their findings provide a serious evidence to the studies on labels and learning. To their opinion, providing new labels to the participants prevents their learning of visual categories. The researchers admit that it may be possible that children are able to learn two different categories simultaneously. They also admit that the experiment may have been flawed since the children had to look at various dimensions while categorizing flowers, and it was hard for them, which, in my opinion, is highly likely to be true (Best et al., 2011, p. 3335-3336). The researchers acknowledge that their findings contradict the previously found evidence and current findings about labels, categorization and learning, but this fact does not encourage them to review their method. The inferences of the results are well-argued, but since the very results are of questionable accuracy, logical reasoning hardly helps.

While these inferences may be not completely untrue, due to the ambiguity of the results, the accuracy of the inferences can be doubted. The researchers state that, despite being more experienced with language if compared to infants, children did not find labeling helpful in learning process. However, if we acknowledge that the study was not conducted in a quite appropriate way, we will come to the conclusion that words have greater value for children than visual information and that labels facilitate learning process, as other scholars claim (Gilbert, Regier, Kay, & Ivry, 2006). In any case, I agree with the authors that further research is necessary to find out, what affect labeling really has on children’s categorization learning.

Suggested Improvements

Several improvements can be suggested to advance the level of accuracy of this research. The proposed improvements relate to the experimental design. First, a more diverse group of participants should be conducted. To make the research more accurate, it may be a good idea to form several groups of different participants. For instance, if the authors want to prove that all the children, without regard to their specificities, learn better without labels, they should create groups of children from white suburban families, children from non-white families, children from disadvantaged families, children, who did not attend preschool institutions, etc. Only then the result would be unbiased. Children of ages other than four can also be involved. Next, the labels should not present a distraction to children, thus making them learn slower; labels should be introduced in a different way.

The paper is well written and clearly organized. The authors introduced their readers into the general problem (a link between language and perception) and the particular problem (the negative or positive effect of labels on children’s learning). To do that, they presented both points of view, citing numerous researchers. This is a strong point, and it makes the problem clear even for a reader, who has never heard of it before.While explaining the method and the nature of experiments, the authors use clear structure, mentioning participants, stimuli and procedure in separate paragraphs, which makes the text more clear and legible.The charts, explaining the nature of the tests, are also included, which makes another strong point. In the end, the authors recognize the possibility of flaws and the presence of the contrasting points of view. The organization of the paper can be categorized as excellent. I also have no objections to the statistical analysis, which was conducted on a high-quality level and was suitable to the task.


In conclusion, the paper was quite clear, and the authors managed to present the information in a way that made it understandable. The charts, provided by the researchers, were helpful for the processing of the information. However, the conclusions of the authors were not convincing to me because of the flaws in the methodology. To my opinion, the tests contained a lapse, which, despite the correct statistical analysis, led to a serious error in the results. Nevertheless, this paper is important since it may be the first step to prove, using a right method, that labels have certain effect on children’s learning. The existence of this paper and the mistakes it contains may encourage someone to perform further research in this direction.


Best, C. A., Robinson, C. W., & Sloutsky, V. M. (2011). The effect of labels on children’s category learning. In L. Carlson, Ch. Hölscher. & T. Shipley (Eds.). Proceedings of the XXXIII Annual Conference of the cognitive science society (pp. 3332-3336). Mahwah, New Jersey: Erlbaum.

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Brooks, P.J., & Kempe, V. (2014). Encyclopedia of language development. New York City, New York: Sage Publications.

Gilbert, A.L., Regier, T., Kay, P., & Ivry, R.B. (2006). Whorf hypothesis is supported in the right visual field but not the left. PNAS, 103(2), 489-494.

Haslam, A., & McGarty, C. (2014). Research methods and statistics in Psychology. New York City, New York: Sage Publications.

Huettig, F., Rommers, J., & Meyer, A.S. (2011). Using the visual world paradigm to study language processing: A review and critical evaluation. Acta Psychologica, 137(2), 151-171.

Lupyan, G., Rakison, D.H., & McClelland, J.L. (2007). Language is not just for talking: Redundant labels facilitate learning of novel categories. Psychological Science, 18(12), 1077-1083.

Robinson, C.W., West, C.A., Deng, W., & Sloutsky, V.M. (2012). The role of words in cognitive tasks: What, when, and how? Frontiers in Psychology, 3(95), n.p. web.

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