Talking to toddlers: It isn't the words, it is the conversation

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Two decades ago, a landmark study found a 30-million-word gap between the number of words spoken to children living in poverty in the first three years of life and those from better-off families.

Parents across the country were told to talk more to their babies, to narrate the ins and outs of their days, in an attempt to expand the child's language ability, and, ultimately, their academic achievement.


But recently released research gives a finer understanding of the language gap between children of different economic backgrounds. While the research is not definitive, it suggests that the number of words spoken each day is not as important as the conversations parents have with their children. Children with a high level of back-and-forth with their parents had brains with a greater ability to be rewired or change and they scored higher on language tests.

More emphasis should be given to engaging children in a back-and-forth discussion, in asking questions and expecting responses.


“The conversation helped them beat the odds a little bit. It is exciting. It disputes the poverty is destiny story.”

—  Rachel Romeo, a Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student studying childhood development

Helping parents understand the importance of conversing with their toddlers to develop their vocabulary and thinking has been a standard practice at an early childhood development center at Hawthorne Elementary School in Middle River.

The Judy Center, one of many in the state, takes children from birth to four years old in a full-day care program that includes home visits by staff, playgroups for children that include their parents, and training for families in how to encourage their child's development.

"Those first four years of life are so important. That is when a lot of the brain development happens. That is going to make things better for their entire school career and their entire life," says Rebecca Lindsey, the facilitator at the Judy Center, which is short for Judith P. Hoyer Early Child Care and Education Enhancement Program.

"It is in the first three years that we need to reach the families and give those kids all the chance they can get."

Lindsey said parents have told her the training is making a difference in the way they talk and interact with their children, and the amount of time they are spending with them.

"We have been doing it that way for years. … We know through practice that the back-and-forth is what they need," said Marisa Conner, the Baltimore County Public Library's youth and family engagement manager. "It has been kind of common sense. This research spells it out."

The library's Sollers Point branch installed an outdoor playground last fall with panels that remind parents that "talking is teaching." The playground was supported partially by the Clinton Foundation and the Opportunity Institute, which are trying to promote the importance of early brain and language development and to get parents to "talk, read and sing" with their children as soon as they are born.

The new research by Rachel Romeo, a Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student, stemmed from a desire to understand a perplexing, decades-old question in education: Why do higher-income students on average do better academically than lower-income students, despite many attempts to intervene and change that trajectory?


Working with other researchers, she wanted to delve into how a child's exposure to language translated into language skill and ability.

Romeo invited families from different economic backgrounds to take part in a study that first gave the children, ages four to six, standardized tests to look at verbal and nonverbal skills. Then the children wore devices that recorded their speech and that of their parents on two weekend days.

When computer software analyzed the recordings, it looked for "turns" in the conversation, those moments when there was a back-and-forth between the child and the adult.

Some of those parents also agreed to let their children undergo a brain scan as they listened to stories. The amount of brain activity was greater in children who had been recorded having more conversations with their parents.

"What we found is that it didn't matter the sheer amount of adult speech the children heard. The back-and-forth turns were strongly linked to brain activity," Lindsey said.

She believes that the word use in families with a lot of conversation between adults and children may stimulate the brain to grow and learn, causing higher academic achievement. But Romeo acknowledged that the study involved only 36 children, too small a sample to be conclusive, and it proved a correlation between the brain activity and talking with young children, but not causation.


Still, Romeo said, as "far as we know this is the first study that links language exposure to measures of brain development."

The research also reinforced the notion that language acquisition, not income, can determine a child's future. Low-income children in the study who were having a lot of conversations with their parents did as well in acquiring language as children from wealthy families.

"The conversation helped them beat the odds a little bit," Romeo said. "It is exciting. It disputes the poverty-is-destiny story."

Higher-income parents are more likely to have knowledge of child development and understand what is important for them to experience.

"They provide their child with the cognitive stimulation the brain craves," Romeo said.

In addition, they are more likely to place importance on the earlier years of schooling.


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Karen Clothier, a graduate researcher in the Johns Hopkins University department of cognitive science, said she would like to see more research on why and how the correlation exists between conversations or "turns" between parent and child and academic achievement.

"Is there some other factor that is the go-between between turn-taking and the verbal skills?" Clothier asked.

"I think it is an interesting result, but it is the first step in a long line of questions to be answered," she said. "I think there are some finer-grain characteristics of these conversations that have more turn-taking that are the ultimate reason."

Steven Hicks, an assistant superintendent for early childhood development at the Maryland State Department of Education, said in a statement that the study validates what has been known in a practical way for years.

"This study validates what we have known for years about the critical need to not only provide vulnerable children with rich vocabulary experiences" but the importance of families emphasizing the development of strong communication, cognitive and social skills, Hicks said.