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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.

It just makes sense: kids who have large, rich vocabularies when they start kindergarten do better in school than kids who do not. In order to read words, for example, a child has to know words and be able to use them. So teaching children a large number of words during the preschool years is a smart move for parents to make.

Research has long backed this up. Studies have compared the number of words two-year-olds hear per hour and have come up with vast differences from child to child and family to family. In general, parents who have more education and more free time to spend with their children use more words in talking with them. These same studies have demonstrated that two-year-olds who hear few words per hour are less ready for kindergarten when they turn five than children who hear more.

Now a new study adds a new wrinkle. According to a paper from the University of Chicago, it’s not only the number of words parents use in talking with their children that makes a difference. It’s also the non-verbal cues – like showing or pointing – that helps children understand. Researchers found that nearly a quarter of the vocabulary growth preschoolers experience is determined by parents’ use of non-verbal cues.

For example, saying “Look at that zebra!” while pointing to the animal helps a child learn the word “zebra” more quickly than just saying, “Let’s go see the zebra.”

Another finding from this study was that a family’s wealth or poverty was not a deciding factor in children’s ability to learn to talk. What mattered was simply the number of words heard and parents’ use of pointing and showing to help children understand. But there were large difference there. Some parents provided non-verbal cues only 5% of the time while other parents provided cues 38% of the time

Of course, parents want their children to do well in school. But school success starts early, in the simple things moms and dads do with kids who are only two or three or four. Here are some ideas:

  1. Take time to carry on conversations. The more you and your child talk together, the smarter she becomes. For some parents, it seems silly to talk about the weather to a toddler. But once you make a habit of talking about anything and everything, your child will start to respond back.
  2. Take time to listen to your child. The way to know what words your child knows is to hear him use them in his own speech. To use words, a child has to have a kindly listener. Even though it sometimes takes kids a long time to say what they want to say, try your best to give them the time. Remember they’re new at this.
  3. When you talk, try to show what you mean. You can point to things, or pick them up. You can demonstrate words like “under” and “beside.” You can say something like, “I’m going to share my cookie with you,” emphasizing the word “share” as you break the cookie in two and give the child a portion.
  4. Remember that talking with your child costs nothing. No matter how advantaged or unadvantaged you feel your family is, you can start your child on the path to success just by talking with him. Conversation levels the playing field.

Being able to use a lot of different words is so important to children’s development. Show and tell your child what’s going on in her world, as much as you can.


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