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Overextension Psychology

Overextension psychology example showing a toddler saying 'doggie' upon seeing a cat.

Overextension Psychology Terms Collection

On this page, we will briefly explore what overextension is, why children engage in overextension and its relationship with language development. We will also outline strategies for addressing overextension in children's language development which can help parents and caregivers support and guide their children's language acquisition and growth. Further reading resources will also be provided.

What is overextension? 

According to the American Psychological Association, overextension is "the tendency of very young children to extend the use of a word beyond the scope of its specific meaning"

Examples of overextension in children's language use include:

  • A child who uses the word "dog" to refer to any four-legged animal
  • A child who uses the word "car" to refer to any vehicle, including trucks and buses
  • A child who uses the word "up" to describe any upward movement, such as climbing a ladder or going up in an elevator.

Why children engage in overextension

Children engage in overextension as a way to label and categorize objects and concepts in their environment, It is a
common error in children's language use, especially in the early stages of language development. However, it differs from other typical language errors, such as using the wrong word form or mispronouncing words. While these errors may indicate a lack of language skills or knowledge, overextension usually reflects a child's attempt to make sense of and describe their environment.

Overextension is a normal part of language development. Younger children are more likely to overextend words because they are still learning how to categorize and differentiate between different objects and concepts. Overextension typically reduces as a child's language skills and knowledge improve. However it may continue to occur if a child has limited language exposure and experience. This is why understanding and addressing overextension is important for supporting children's language development. By providing language-rich environments and experiences, parents and caregivers help children learn new words and expand their vocabulary.

Overextension Strategies

There are several strategies that parents and caregivers can use to address overextension in children's language development: For example:

  • Encourage children to learn new words and expand their vocabulary by reading books, listening to music, and engaging in conversations.
  • Model correct language use: When interacting with children, use correct language and pronunciation to provide a model for them to follow. If a child overextends a word, gently correct them and provide the correct word.
  • Encourage children to verbally use words to express their needs, wants, and thoughts. This can help build their vocabulary and language skills.
  • Play word games and engage in activities that encourage children to use and expand their vocabulary, such as Scrabble, Boggle, and word search puzzles.
  • Seek evaluation or support if needed: If a child's overextension persists or is accompanied by other language delays or difficulties, seek further evaluation or support from a qualified specialist.

(Cognitive psychologist and psycholinguist, professor Steven Pinker on how children learn language)

Overextension Psychology Further Reading Resources 

A computational theory of child overextension

Overextension in Early Language Development

Development of Language in Children

Child Psychology

There is a child psychology page on the website which includes information and resources about the scientific study of children's behavior and development, which you can access by clicking on the image above.

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