Promote the Shape Bias

Promote the Shape Bias

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.

Do many sorting activities where you organize objects 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 pants, or other objects.

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.

Please visit the Shape Bias page on our science website to learn about this important concept in more detail.

Shape Bias


—Dr. Robert C. Titzer

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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