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The research has been around for over 40 years but some parents still haven’t got the message.  Babies need conversation. Small children need conversation.  Conversation is essential to children’s intellectual development.

And some children get more – much more – conversation than others. It adds up by preschool to a 30 million word gap.

A study conducted in 1968 by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, described in their book Meaningful Differences, tallied the number of words 40 children heard on average in the first three years of life. The differences were astonishing, with some toddlers hearing only about 500 words per hour (that’s just 10 words each minute) and some toddlers hearing more than twice that number. Children who hear more words per hour at age three heard more words earlier in life, meaning they had heard more words each hour for more total hours. It all added up to a difference at age three of about 30 million words.

New studies have replicated Hart and Risley’s original findings. The difference in the level of family conversation has not leveled out.  Stanford University is the latest to report this difference and also evidence of a difference in children’s thinking ability at 18 months. This is important. A bigger, richer vocabulary is not just good all by itself. Conversation isn’t just conversation. When parents talk with their small children, children develop concepts and learn to think in ways that children miss out on if their parents don’t talk to them much.

So words are important but it’s not just quantity of talk, it’s quality too. As Dana Suskind, professor of surgery and pediatrics at University of Chicago puts it, “We can’t just have people saying 30 million times ‘stop it!’ It’s got to be much more.” And of course, if parents are have lots of conversations with their children, they are doing more than just barking orders. They are talking about what’s happening, what they might do next, how things feel and look and taste, and they’re asking children to share their opinions too. They’re asking questions and giving answers.

Children who don’t hear very many words get a double-whammy: they not only have few conversations but the conversations they do have tend to be unpleasant. When parents don’t have much to say to their kids, what they do say tends to be direct orders and corrections, not pleasant interactions.

Research into number of words heard at first drew a connection between conversation level and family finances. It found that children in the poorest households were talked with less by their parents than more advantaged children were. Now this isn’t so clear. Now, alarmingly, low levels of conversation are linked as well to affluent parents who spend a lot of time on their cell phones and tablets, talking or texting with people other than their children. Overheard conversations and talk on radio or TV don’t count. They don’t increase a child’s experience with language. Even your own child could be at risk.

What can you do?

A great resource for parents is the Three Million Words initiative in Chicago, and its lovely website.

The tremendous difference in words heard in just three years should be a wake-up call for all parents. This is easy and it costs nothing. Give your child the gift of conversation and start today!



© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.