mother touching little girl's face as they smile at each other

The number of words per day a child hears can make more difference than you think, explains Dr Matt Sanders.

In the battle against obesity and cardio-vascular disease, the wrist-band that monitors your daily steps has certainly proven popular. But being aware of the number of words you speak each day to your baby or child could be even more crucial, as research indicates it can be a key factor in later academic success.

IT’S NEVER TOO SOON

The way parents and caregivers speak to children doesn’t just help children to learn and understand spoken language; it also helps with their overall intellectual development. Yet many parents don’t realize that a child can understand what’s being said well before they can speak themselves. (The classic example is when parents discover too late that the baby or toddler in the backseat has been hard at work learning the colorful language they’ve been hearing when mom or dad reacts to a traffic incident!)

If you’ve ever learned a foreign language as an adult, you may have experienced for yourself how you’re able to understand what’s being said long before you become a fluent speaker. As well as figuring out what to say, babies who are learning to speak also have the extra challenge of discovering how to manipulate their tongue, lips, teeth and breath to produce the right sounds. [One interesting method that’s arisen in recent years to overcome this problem is the development of various kinds of baby sign language. These can allow some communication even before children have mastered all the 'mouth mechanics'. However, there’s not much in the way of evidence that there are any benefits for a child’s overall language development.]

WHAT THE RESEARCH SAYS

What we now know, thanks to a wide body of research, is that the first three years of life are particularly important for the development of language. One of the classic observational studies on this topic found that a lot of positive interaction and a larger vocabulary used in parent-child speech seems to improve the rate at which new words are added to a young child’s vocabulary. Some parents, however, speak less frequently to children, use fewer words, and focus more on issuing directions and reprimands than conversation.

For a variety of reasons, it appears that many families from lower socio-economic groups tend to speak to their children less frequently than parents of children from middle class homes, and expose them to fewer words. The overall effect appears to be that, over time, some children are exposed to literally millions more words than others. This is known as the 'word gap' and it appears related to IQ and academic achievements once the child starts school. (Having said all that, it’s also important to acknowledge that low-income families may speak languages other than English and have a whole world of cultural experiences that can be drawn upon to enrich their learning.)

What’s really exciting is newer research into how this word gap can be bridged. In a Stanford University-service agency partnership, parents are given support in using vocabulary-rich, child-directed conversation to help support their infants’ brain development. Preliminary results, released in November 2014, showed that parents who’d had the coaching had increased the amount of child-directed speech to their 2-year-olds by 25 percent (compared to only an 8 percent increase in the control group). Their children were also “significantly more efficient in their language processing skills”. We eagerly await the next round of results from this project, along with others working to bridge the word gap.

In the meantime, it’s reassuring for parents to know that one of the key principles of Triple P, providing a positive learning environment, is backed up by research in other fields also. And anything that helps understand more about the role parents play as their child’s first teacher is a good thing!

WHAT YOU CAN DO TO GET STARTED

  • One of the most important changes parents can make is taking the opportunity to talk about and describe objects and events. Even with babies, who obviously can’t answer you, you can still make a point of talking to your child to describe whatever you’re experiencing: “Wow, that’s a really interesting red flower. Can you see those yellow spots on the leaves, too? I wonder how it smells? Mmm, that’s a really good-smelling flower. It smells like perfume. Do you want to try smelling it?” Don’t be afraid to use the same word a number of times in different ways, as this is how children absorb different meanings and sentence structures.
  • Providing a child with a language-rich environment also includes exposure to a variety of experiences, books and other written material. Reading to your child, going to the library, and letting them see you read books for enjoyment are all very beneficial.
  • When children are able to talk themselves, you can ask them questions and encourage them to talk to you about what they’re doing – or what you’re doing. It’s a bit like looking at the world as a giant mystery, and you’re both helping each other to solve it and discover more clues, just by talking to each other. Approaching daily tasks and outings in this way and understanding how you’re supporting your child’s development can help give you more confidence as a parent and make everyday tasks more enjoyable.