How Do Children Learn?

Jonah Lester

Understand how children learn it is one of the fundamental missions of disciplines such as evolutionary psychology and educational psychology. During the last decades, many studies have been carried out and a large number of theories have been raised that study the phenomenon of learning in childhood.

Although some of the mechanisms of learning are universal and remain constant throughout a child's development, others have been found to vary from person to person, and between different stages of learning. This has enabled educators to improve and refine teaching techniques..

On the other hand, for parents, understanding the way in which their children learn is essential to be able to support them in the best way in their educational process. In this article we will tell you how children acquire some of the most important skills in their development.

Article index

  • 1 How do children learn to speak?
    • 1.1 Distinction of sensory stimuli
    • 1.2 Sound production
  • 2 How do children learn to read?
    • 2.1 Match letters with sounds
    • 2.2 Reading syllables and whole words
    • 2.3 Acquire fluency
  • 3 How do children learn other complex skills?
    • 3.1 Unconscious incompetence
    • 3.2 Conscious incompetence
    • 3.3 Conscious competence
    • 3.4 Unconscious competence
  • 4 References

How do children learn to speak?

Language is one of the main factors that separates human beings from other animals. Many psychologists have argued that the ability to speak is what allowed our species to develop, becoming what we are today.

For this reason, the study of how to learn to speak is one of the most important topics in all of evolutionary psychology. The process of acquiring the ability to express oneself with words is extremely complex and begins practically at the moment of birth..

Next we will see what are the two skills necessary for a child to learn to speak.

Sensory stimuli distinction

The first thing a baby has to learn before being able to speak is to distinguish the different stimuli that reach their senses..

At first, the perception of newborns does not work very well, so distinguishing specific words from other types of sounds is a task that they cannot achieve correctly.

However, over time babies refine their understanding of the stimuli they receive, in such a way that they are first able to distinguish language from other types of sounds.

Later they have to acquire the ability to find the spaces between words and, finally, understand that they have a concrete meaning.

All these skills are developed between birth and the first 18 months of life approximately, at the same time that the child acquires another of the fundamental skills for speech: the production of sounds.

Sound production

Babies instinctively try to imitate their reference figures from the moment of birth. Studies show that children as young as a few minutes old are able to reproduce their parents' facial expressions, and this ability improves over time.

One of the more complex versions of this skill is the ability to reproduce sounds. At first, babies start making meaningless noises (babbling, screaming, laughing, etc.). However, over time they begin to emit first syllables and then whole words.

The language acquisition process begins very slowly; on average children learn about 50 words in their first year and a half of life.

However, from that moment on there is an explosion in his language development, having acquired at the age of 6 approximately 11,000 words in his vocabulary.

How do children learn to read?

Unlike spoken language, literacy is not a skill that is encoded within our genes..

This is because our first ancestors had no written language; therefore, learning to read is a process that is often much more difficult for children than learning to speak.

Acquiring this skill requires that the child master a series of very complex steps, which means that the process can be extended over time.

Most people are able to read between the ages of four and seven, although some have some special difficulties.

Next we will see what are the skills necessary for a child to learn to read.

Match letters to sounds

The first thing a child has to learn to start reading is that each of the letters of the alphabet has a specific way of being written.

The relationship between a letter and its sound is arbitrary, so it is necessary to memorize each of these in order to understand written texts..

Luckily, Spanish is a language that is read exactly as it is written, unlike others such as English, whose difficulty increases exponentially.

Reading syllables and whole words

Later, children must learn the relationship between the different letters, so that they are able to read syllables and, later, whole words.

Again, acquiring this skill for the Spanish language is much easier than for most other languages, in which the sound of each letter changes depending on the one in front of it..

Acquire fluency

Finally, once children are able to understand whole words, the last step they must take to learn to read correctly is to gain speed in the process. This takes a lot of practice, which is why most people don't get it until late childhood..

How do children learn other complex skills?

Despite the fact that each skill requires a series of concrete steps to be mastered, numerous studies on human learning have revealed that there are always four phases in the acquisition of a new one. Next we will see each of these.

Unconscious incompetence

In this first phase, the person not only has not acquired the desired skill, but he does not even know what is wrong or what he has to learn.

Conscious incompetence

Later, the person finds out what they are doing wrong and what steps they need to take to acquire the new skill (thanks to their own study or the help of a mentor). However, he has not yet been able to carry out the process and, therefore, does not master it.

Conscious competition

At this point the person already has some mastery over the new skill, but still needs to put a lot of mental effort into it..

Unconscious competence

When this last point is reached, the person has fully internalized what they have learned and is therefore able to use their new skill effortlessly and appropriately.


  1. "How Children Learn to Talk" in: Parenting. Retrieved on: May 06, 2018 from Parenting:
  2. "How Children Learn" in: National Academy Press. Retrieved on: May 06, 2018 from National Academy Press:
  3. "Learning" in: Wikipedia. Retrieved on: May 06, 2018 from Wikipedia:
  4. "How Children Learn" in: Learn English Kids. Retrieved on: May 06, 2018 from Learn English Kids:
  5. "How Do Children Learn to Read?" in: Reading Rockets. Retrieved on: May 06, 2018 from Reading Rockets:

Yet No Comments