How do parents talk with their infants and toddlers?

Parents vary a lot in terms of how and how much they talk with their infants and toddlers.

Some parents are very talkative and often go an extra mile to keep up the conversation. Other parents talk about the same kinds of things but do so much less and stick to basic ‘business’, the kinds of talk going on during daily routines.

Being more taciturn and having fewer conversations isn’t that big of deal, you may think. Yes it is!

Words add up: The differences in the amount of talk toddlers get to hear over the first few years are mind-blowing. And, how much or how little parents talk has short- and long-term consequences as to how much their children learn.

The 30-million word gap

Parents’ talk made headlines in 1995. Dr. Hart & Dr. Risley found that children from low-income families have heard about 30 million fewer words by the age of 4 compared to their peers from high-income families. That’s the 30-million-word gap often in the news these days. What gets a bit lost in the news nowadays is that they also found that fewer words went hand in hand with fewer interactions, a lower diversity in the kinds of words, fewer praise and encouragement, and more. Fewer words over time meant fewer of those language rich interactions that nurture children’s language and brains and help them to become efficient learners. The big word gap in parents’ talk translated into a big word gap in their children by age 3 which then affected their performance later on in school. Saying fewer words by age 3 set these children so far back that they could not catch up later. Making up lost ground is hard.

Learn more about the headline news making study from Dr. Todd Risley, one of the researchers.


Word Gaps Appear even Earlier – at 18 Months!

Word gaps by age 3 are not the end of the story. Dr. Anne Fernald and colleagues at Stanford University discovered word gaps at 18 months, and by the second birthday some children were behind others by a full six months!! A quarter of their entire life-time! Children from low-socio-economic homes understood and talked less than their peers from high socio-economic backgrounds. This is an alarmingly big gap at this young age, especially because gaps likely don’t shrink but grow. It means that just as toddlers start out to understand and talk, some are already behind! For a discussion of the political and educational implications of this early language gap, read the headline making newsarticle here.

If you’d like to watch how the language gap was discovered in Dr. Fernald’s lab, watch this short Times video clip called ‘Tracking the Vocabulary Gap’ here. If you watch closely, you’ll notice that at 18 months of age, the child shifts to the correct picture only after having heard the entire word ‘doggie’. By 30 months, the child is a lot faster and shifts after having heard a bit of the word ‘doggie’, just like adults in this task would do. 

Early word gaps turn into achievement gaps

Early word gaps are a strong predictor for a persistent achievement gap in education in the K-12 system. Early word gaps in parents’ conversations ripple through children’s later learning outcomes. So it is more and more clear that giving children a promising future ahead has to begin with rich and plenty of conversations from the people infants and toddlers spend a lot of time with: Parents, babysitters and day care teachers. That said, parents are children’s best role models and teachers.

Your talk and conversations are powerful! 

Language rich-interactions boost language, learning and the developing brain. More conversations and words with the child in the infant and toddler years makes learning and building knowledge for the child much easier going forward.

To illustrate my point, take this example given by Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek at the 2014 NAEYC conference (National Association for the Education of Young Children) . Picture a parent and toddler in the grocery store. The child sees an eggplant, is interested in it but doesn’t know what it is. Here’s how parents can engage:

Parent 1: You won’t like it, let’s go.
Parent 2: That purple thing is an eggplant but we don’t cook it. Let’s go.
Parent 3: That purple vegetable is an eggplant. Do you wanna touch it? How does it feel? Shall we take it home and make some yummy dinner with it? How about eggplant parmesan? Do you wanna weigh the eggplant? Is it heavier than the lemon?

All three parental conversational patterns exist in real life. You can imagine which child learns the most in the long run: The one with Parent 3, who taps into the child’s interest and runs with it, giving the child a mountain of enriching learning experiences. Daily fluctuations in your conversations are perfectly ‘normal’ and to be expected. It’s constantly not getting enough conversations and language that leads to word gaps.

My bigger point: Birth and not pre-school is the starting point for a promising future. By engaging your child in high-quality interactions and conversations from the get-go, you give her meaningful benefits – in the early years, in school, and beyond.

  • With academic skills in school: Toddlers who hear more words and hear them in meaningful contexts when interacting with parents in the first two and three years, learn language faster than those who don’t experience high quality interactions early on. These children do better in school in language skills such as reading, writing and spelling but also in cognitive skills such as reasoning, problem-solving, and some even have advantages in math.
  • With handling anger and challenging situations when entering kindergarten. Children good with words use them to handle their emotions better.
  • With making friendships with peers and teachers. Words and being able to strike up a conversation