Long before there is reading there is talking. The kind of talking parents do is one key to their child’s future economic success.
I’ve read that a child who hears 30 million words before entering kindergarten has a learning advantage. The question is what are the words a baby, toddler, preschooler needs to hear.
Education researchers Todd Risley and Betty Hart, authors of Meaningful Differences and The Social World of Children Learning to Talk, began studying the relation between vocabulary learning and social inequity, particularly the “word gap.” The work they started in 1965 continues to be analyzed and refined.
According to Risley and Hart’s early work, on average, children will have heard thirty million words addressed to them by the time they are four. In talkative families four year olds will have heard forty-eight million words addressed to them. In families where the speaking style is taciturn, the children will have heard thirteen million words addressed to them by the age of four.
In their early research Risley and Hart were looking for economic factors. They found that talkative parents predominate among professional, business, and college educated parents. In socio-economically disadvantaged families taciturn parents are more prevalent. The question then became does the talking itself make a difference regardless of the family’s social status.
Researchers began to look more closely at the effect of speaking style in various cultural, social and economic groups. The “talkative” advantage prevails in every group. Analyzing the nature of verbal interactions between children and their parents showed that the difference is dependent on more than the quantity of words. The nature of the conversation matters.
Both talkative and taciturn parents engage in about the same amount of the “intentional talk” with their children. All parents talk to their children about eating, washing and other normal daily activities when interacting with their one and two year olds; “Stop that” “Get down,” “Hold out your hands” “Who gave you that?” These interactions are utilitarian and are spoken in the present test. The sentences as well as the concepts are simple and straightforward. There is little opportunity for conversation. Children usually hear more about what they are doing wrong than what they do right and are likely to hear prohibition more often than affirmation. In more taciturn families, parents and their children communicate in this way most of the time.
Parents who talk more to their children tend to engage in more complex verbal exchanges. They are more likely to elaborate on a theme and follow up on topics initiated by the child. A more interactive conversational style encourages the child to ask questions and express ideas. By its very nature this type of communication is more affirmative.
The differences in talkative and taciturn speaking style have impact even before a child begins to speak. Infants respond to repetitive sing song vocalizations that cue their brains to recognize the structure of language and to distinguish spoken sounds from all of the other noises in the environment. Imitating baby’s sounds and encouraging baby’s imitations of parent’s speech create a give and take foundation for language development.
After fifty years of research the indications are that both the amount and the quality of talk that occurs at home is actually highly correlated to children’s overall success.
Rorie Measure is the president of the Children’s Reading Alliance, a grassroots citizen-led initiative to encourage family literacy throughout Doña Ana County.