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What Are the Benefits of Talking with Small Children?

by Emma Wells, studioD

People often roll their eyes as parents speak baby talk to their little ones, but as foolish as it may seem to adults, talking to children beginning at a young age is actually essential to their development. Researchers at the University of Kansas found in a 1995 study that there was a direct correlation between the number of words children heard before they were 3 and their IQ and achievement in school. Talking to your young child is one of the most crucial things you can do to ensure her success in life.

Socioeconomics and Talk

The same study from the University of Kansas also found that there was a large gap between the number of words children from low-income families heard before the age of 3 and the number of words heard by children from more-affluent families. On average, children from middle-class families hear 30 million more words than children from lower-income families before the age of 3. This means that even before starting school, children from lower-income families are behind in vocabulary, which translates to lower test scores and literacy levels once they enter school. Researchers speculated that while middle-class parents often learn about parenting from doctors and other professionals who author parenting books, lower-income parents are less likely to be aware of the correlation between talking to their children and potential achievement later in life, according to "The New York Times."

Oral Communication and Reading

According to the Oxford University Press, developing your child’s oral language skills is a necessary precursor to developing his reading and writing ability. Boys, in particular, are sometimes lacking in critical communication and literacy skills, as parents tend to talk more with girls. In addition to having daily conversations with young children, expose them to literature by reading aloud, taking them to story time at the library and talking with them about the books you read together. You can ask children questions about the story and characters to ensure that they do most of the talking and to help them develop analytical strategies for reading.

Implications for Academic Achievement

The achievement gap in the U.S. starts with development in oral communication when children are very young. Despite various attempts from teachers and education policymakers to close the gap in education between children from affluent families and those from low-income families, the gap is widening every year, says "The New York Times." Literacy is the factor that influences this problem most, because the home environments of children from affluent families encourage literacy to a greater degree than the home environments of children from low-income families. Because parents of lower socioeconomic status tend to have a more narrow vocabulary than parents with professional occupations, researchers discovered that parents were actually creating a “language deficit” through generations. Watching television does not increase children’s verbal fluency, and it actually has a negative effect, found the University of Kansas study. It’s better for parents to talk to their children directly and nurture healthy conversations, while also providing educational materials such as books.

Successful Programs

Providence, Rhode Island, has implemented a program that city officials and education policymakers are hoping improves academic achievement for children of low-income families. Based on the research around oral communication development for babies and toddlers, the city has decided to include "conversation" in its services. Professionals enter the homes of lower-income new parents and create meaningful conversation, teaching parents the importance of talking to children while also introducing the children to increased vocabulary. Programs like this one and Head Start, a preschool program that helps lower-income children catch up on the skills of their more-affluent peers, are aimed at closing the achievement gap in the future.


About the Author

Emma Wells has been writing professionally since 2004. She is also a writing instructor, editor and former elementary school teacher. She has a Master's degree in writing and a Bachelor of Arts in English and anthropology. Her creative work has been published in several small literary magazines.

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