You might be surprised how simple it is to support language development…..and set the stage for even more advantages in the future!
Years ago, researchers Betty Hart, PhD and Todd Risley, PhD of the University of Kansas, uncovered some amazing results from a very in-depth study of young children (0-3), their caregivers, and their conversations. After three years of observing 42 families from across a varied socio-economic pool, and examining the more than 1,300 hours of interactions they had recorded, they discovered a great deal about language, but also made some surprising connections along the way.
They were already aware of one well-known finding: There’s an academic divide across the socio-economic landscape that shows kids from more affluent homes succeeding in schools and kids from poorer homes struggling. But the next thing they uncovered was more surprising. The connection to academic success may not come directly from income, rather from something that is absolutely free. Words.
The researchers found that children in affluent homes heard more words per day than the children from lower SES brackets. Children from families on welfare were exposed to just over 600 words in an hour of interactions. Children from working-class homes were exposed to over 1,200 words in that same amount of time. Topping them all, however, were the children from professional class families, who heard over 2,100 words in an average hour. Over the course of the first three years of life, that’s a difference of millions of words.
Now here’s the best part. Hart and Risley asserted that families from the lower SES brackets who talked like the families in the higher SES brackets had children who performed in school like those higher SES kids. It was the accumulation of conversations that increased their learning abilities, not the accumulation of wealth.
Considering the seriousness of the educational disparity along socio-economic lines, it’s almost shocking to think that that disparity could be lessened or even erased with something so simple, so accessible as WORDS.
WORDS: How many? What Kind?
According to Hart and Risley, the optimal input of words in a young child’s day totals around 30,000 words. That seems like a lot. But it can come from a lot of sources. Reading and discussing books at story time could easily yield 2,000 words. Talking during diaper changes and meal times could increase that total exponentially. But there is one source of verbal input that was NOT shown to add to those totals: TV. While there are plenty of words coming from the screen, those words didn’t carry the same benefits as words shared in a conversation with an adult (or even older children) with whom the child shared a relationship.
As Dr. Khanh-Van Le-Bucklin, M.D., an academic pediatrician with the University of California, Irvine has been quoted, “I tell parents that the best toy they can give their children is themselves. No educational toy, TV program or video can positively affect a child’s development like time spent with an engaged and talking adult.”
While examining hours and hours of conversations, Hart and Risley also looked at the types of conversations that were taking place. They found that the caregivers who ended up tallying lower numbers of words per day were most often speaking to the child in directives. “Put on your coat.“ “Get in the car.” “Go eat your dinner.” But those who hit the ideal 30,000 word mark were those who engaged the child in conversation and narrated their experiences through the day with descriptive language.
Consider this alternative to the low-yield directive, “Put on your coat.“:
“It’s time to go see Grammy! But first we need to get your coat on. It’s so cold and windy today. Can you see those trees? See their branches moving? It’s so windy! Brrr! Let’s get your coat! Let’s put one arm in…..there’s your hand! Now the other arm……there’s your hand! Now we need to ziiiiiiip it up! Do you want your hood on or off? On? There you go! You looks so warm now! I should put on my jacket too……”
A four word directive turns into an 80+ word experience! It’s easy to see how quickly the disparity between directive caregivers and conversational caregivers can grow. According to the research it can be the difference of 8 million words a year!
Can you imagine if we were talking about calories? If we were discussing the difference between kids who got the necessary 30,000 “calories” a day vs the kids were were only getting 5,000? In that context we can see that there are children who are absolutely starving for words!
I firmly believe that parents want what’s best for their kids. I don’t think there’s anyone out there who is intentionally withholding words in the hopes of stunting their child’s development. There are many things that may lead a parent to talk more or less to their children. Work schedules, stress, illness, and childcare options can be big roadblocks, and we don’t always have full control over them.
But I also believe there are simpler roadblocks, like awareness, that we can try to remove. Today. We can start today by being aware of the distractions that are stealing precious conversations (TV, phones, rushed schedules) while at the same time becoming more aware of the many opportunities for conversations in the everyday moments of our lives.
Here are 5 Ways to Build Early Language Skills:
- Recognize Cues…and Respond! - Even infants and preverbal toddlers participate in the give-and-take “dance” of conversation. If you don’t think so, check out this video or this one. Learn to recognize when children are making attempts to communicate. Making eye-contact, cooing, even hand tapping can be attempts to engage you. Respond by talking or by mirroring the child’s attempts. The simple act of taking turns cuing and responding lays the first foundation for conversation.
- Become a Sportscaster - Give a verbal play-by-play to describe what’s going on in your child’s daily experiences. Talk through the steps as you dress your child, prepare a bath, or serve up dinner. This is great for giving your child meaningful words in their natural context (as you see in this video, the word “water” was learned through interactions in — surprise!– the kitchen and bathroom). As an added bonus, this technique also keeps little ones engaged during periods where they might otherwise become impatient!
- Be Present, Be Patient - Perhaps the biggest threat to young children getting enough words each day is the busyness and distraction that engulf us. On the flip side, the best way to bring words into the lives of our children is to be truly present and aware of what they are paying attention to. When we give them the words in the moments that hold the most meaning for them, the impact is powerful. But we have to slow down, be aware, and take the time to talk at a comfortable, natural pace.
- Remember to Pause - With all this focus on exposing kids to enough words each day, it’s easy to get caught up and overload kids with words. But quiet is important too. We have to give kids a chance to contribute as well — whether verbally or nonverbally. Without remembering to pause, we’re only talking AT children, not WITH them, and we sadly miss the mark. (Read more about this technique from a fabulous post about the Perfect Pause from The Little Stories.)
- Collect Drops in a Bucket - Remember that children accumulate their verbal abilities one word at a time. It’s like adding drops of water to a bucket. Each one seems small and insignificant, but as they accumulate over time, soon you find they’re overflowing! As we see from the research, simple differences on a daily or even hourly basis may not seem like much in the moment, but over the course of a childhood, it adds up to a difference of millions of words. And with those words, a world of opportunity opens up.
What do you do to make time for conversations with the children you love and teach?