The 30 million word gap has become somewhat legendary. But in case you missed the recurrent rumbling, here’s the quick rundown. Back in 1995, researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley recorded hours and hours of interactions between parents and children. What they found was startling. By age three, the average child from a family in the professional class heard 30 million more words than did the average child living on welfare. What was perhaps most striking about this research was their finding that there was a tight link between the number of words a child heard and their future academic success. This link was so strong that it appears to exist even when other factors, including socioeconomic factors, were controlled for. In essence, they asserted that closing that word gap could close the achievement gap between the social classes.
Subsequent studies have found that it isn’t just the quantity of words, but the quality of conversation that makes such a big difference for kids.
When I talk with parents and teachers, I divide language up into three categories: Direction, Instruction, and Discussion. Direction tells kids what to do. “Hang up your coat.” “Head out to the car.” “Stop hitting your brother.” Instruction is direct teaching. “Here’s how you make an M.” “That’s called a new moon.” “A tadpole turns into a frog.”
Direction and instruction are necessary. Even very important and powerful when used in the right ways. But a steady diet of only these types of language leaves children linguistically malnourished.
One of the most nutrient-dense language experiences comes in the form of discussion. The give and take of thoughts and perceptions. The place where words and ideas combine and multiply. “Why do you think that happens?” “What do you think will happen next?” “Have you ever done something like that?”
Dr. Risely refers to the former as “business talk”. But when referencing the richness of discussion he says this: “Betty and I were looking for something we called “incidental teaching”; that’s capitalizing on the teachable moment to expand and elaborate your child’s comment or words. That’s where the best teaching happens. It always turns out that’s an automatic part of extra talk. It doesn’t have to be taught. It’s automatically there when you’re talking about extra things that are not business. If you’re talking a lot, then you begin to talk, begin to add all those interesting interactions. Talkative parents don’t start conversations more often. Whether there’s a taciturn parent or a very talkative parent, they start their interactions with their baby about as often. It’s that the talkative parents are taking extra turns responding to what the child just said and did, and elaborating on it, or responding to it, or caring — taking extra turns.” (source – emphasis mine)
It doesn’t take extra money, extra degrees, or extra products. It just takes an extra dose of connection, intention, and responsiveness.
While marketing teams would like to convince us that our schools and our homes need more “stuff”, the reality is that the most powerful tool for early learning is free.
Erika Christakis, author of The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups
(*affiliate link) presented it this way:
“Conversation is gold. It’s the most efficient early-learning system we have. And it’s far more valuable than most of the reading-skills curricula we have been implementing: One meta-analysis of 13 early-childhood literacy programs “failed to find any evidence of effects on language or print-based outcomes.” Take a moment to digest that devastating conclusion.” (source)
And it’s not just curricula. We’ve convinced ourselves that our kids need tech toys. Gadgets. DVDs. Apps. Programs.
But amidst all this, they really just need us.
The unfortunate irony is that a recent study has shown that when playing with electronic toys – specifically marketed for their language enhancing qualities – both parents and children spoke LESS than when using simple toys like blocks or reading books. And the payoff for the passive entertainment of these tech-toys pales in comparison with engaging conversations between real live humans.
I do enjoy reading the research and sharing it. But what I really love is seeing it in action or hearing from others who do.
I was sharing the information about the importance of discussion in early language experiences during a breakout session recently when a teacher there shared a powerful story. She recalled one of her students, who was essentially homeless at the time that she taught him. He was living in a car with his mother. Every day, his mother would get the paper in order to go through the classifieds, looking for a job. The rest of the paper they would read and discuss together.
“He was one of the brightest students I taught,” she reminisced tenderly.
It’s been said that sometimes we’re in such a hurry to give kids the things we never had, that we forget to give them the things we did have. Face to face discussions may be at the top of that list.
How do you engage children in meaningful conversations? We’ll be talking more about that in the next post!