Teaching Your Child to Talk…There’s No App for That

5 ways to build early language skills (and set up kids for future success!)

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?



Filed under Child Development & DAP, Learning through Play and Experience

17 Responses to Teaching Your Child to Talk…There’s No App for That

  1. Kelly

    This is a wonderful post – thanks especially for the links!

    • notjustcute

      So glad you like the links! My brain is wired like a hyper-linked article: every thought leads to another! I often worry I’ll overwhelm people with links, so I’m very happy to hear they are helpful to you!

  2. Wonderful article! Another great way to support language is to add songs and chants to your daily routines. Pick a few that interest your child and repeat them often. Sing in the car, on a walk, whenever you have a minute to spare. It’s amazing how fast young children will pick up new vocabulary through music, plus it’s a great way to bond with your little ones.

    • notjustcute

      So true, Angela! I’m glad you brought that up! Songs and chants are like superfoods for our little ones. Thank you so much for adding on!

  3. gloria

    What a wonderful article. One thing I’ve been noticing about young moms is their new tendency to be preoccupied with their phones even when they are doing things with their kids. I see it at playgrounds and in cars all the time–these valuable moments for being with the children are being confiscated by others. I don’t know how to change it…I love that my girls (young moms themselves) are able to call me often and regularly, but I kind of wish that option wasn’t open to them for their children’s sake.

  4. How very interesting. I have to share it with my friends with younger kids. It’s also very applicable to bilingual development – my husband spoke a lot of German with our daughter when she was a baby but his frequency dropped off as her English exploded, so now, sadly, her German is completely “dormant”.

    • Darlene Almarz

      But, she is fortunate because even though that language lay “dormant”, her brain is wired for it and will recognize the sounds and pick it up easily later on. Lucky girl!

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  7. I also am a fan of all your links!! I feel like your blog taps into the intellectual part of my “mom” brain and helps me feel still connected to my profession. I love being able to read the actual research articles ( I think one semester of a stats class cures anyone of taking statistics and claims made by studies at face value). A few years back I read the book “The Read Aloud Handbook” by Jim Trelease. It was a total “aha!” moment for me when he discusses some of these same studies and the conclusions drawn. The “gap” is established before kids even start school. Being a sportscaster takes quite a bit of conscious effort from me, but I definitely try to do it when I think of it! Thanks for the great article and all the reminders.

  8. Jennifer

    An amazing blog post and such a great reminder to us, as parents, that time spent with our kids is most valuable (and by “time spent”, I mean actually being present and attentive and not just around). Our kids ask us a million questions because their brains are just soaking up all of that information. I loved so much about this post, but my favorite was the example you gave of how to expand the conversation you have with your kids from “Put on your coat” to explaining to them about the process and, even, why (it’s cold outside). My youngest is a year old and, though she isn’t talking much yet, I know she is understanding most of what we say to her. So, even at such a young age, they are listening!!

  9. Okay, I just finished the link to the TED talk. AMAZING. What an incredible and powerful data set. Thanks for sharing.

    • I love that you go through all the links, Andrea! And I’ve been hearing a lot about that Read Aloud Handbook lately — I’m going to have to pick that one up!

  10. Mandy,

    Awesome post. I think is is a great start to helping Blake with speech development.

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