Toddlers have an easier time learning new words when they figure out the meanings themselves, according to new study reported on Thursday.

Meredith Brinster, an undergraduate researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, compared the effectiveness of two different word-learning strategies on 100 children between the ages of 36 and 42 months.

Her findings indicated that words learned through inference, by the process of elimination, for instance, are more easily retained than when learned through direct instruction.

The results could change the way we think about education and learning, said Justin Halberda, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins.

"There are two ways to learn as a child: you either learn because you figured it out yourself, or you learn because somebody told you, and lots of our school-based education is engaged in people telling us things," said Halberda.

"It turns out that the kids know more words if they learn by inference and they have higher confidence in their word knowledge," he added.

Working on the hypothesis that the children would learn words more quickly if they were more involved, Brinster did trials to test the effectiveness of inference versus direct instruction.

For the inference trial, Brinster showed the youngsters images of both familiar and unfamiliar objects, such as a ball and a plumber's "T" connector, and after saying a made-up word, like "blicket," she asked them to identify the corresponding item.

The children knew what a ball was so they had to infer that the plumber's "T" was the "blicket."

In the direct instruction trial, the children were simply shown the unfamiliar objects and told the made-up names.

Later, Brinster let the children play with the familiar objects and then brought out the unfamiliar objects, asking them to help her identify them.

"Overall, we found that the children were more accurate when the words were presented with another picture, or as an inference trial, compared to the instruction trial," Brinster explained in an interview.

"From what I see, they're going though a process of elimination and using their own existing information, which could be creating all these other links," Brinster said.

She will present her findings at a meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development in Boston next month.