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Boosting Language Skills — Good Parenting


ThinkstockPhotos 110884456Dear Dr. Debbie,

I have heard that language development happens early. My children are 5 years, 3 years, and 5 months. We have stories routinely at bedtime and keep books, including board books for the baby, in several spots around the house and in the car. The older two sing song games with me in the car – each of us taking a turn, and show the baby how to do Eensy Weensy Spider. We are lucky to have an extended family that includes immigrants who speak a language other than English around our children. Is there anything else we can be doing to promote good language skills?

Mom of Three


Don’t miss last week’s column Using Technology to Keep Track of Teens — Good Parenting 

Dear Mom,

These are terrific contributions to developing language skills. Research comparing children who do well in school as compared with children who do not has suggested that language is a key component of success. Books, specifically, correlated with academic success in a twenty-year study that counted the number of books in the home. Across 27 countries, having at least 500 books in the home correlated with staying an average 3.2 years longer in school than for a student with a similar background but with fewer or no books at home. The leader of this international research team, Dr. Mariah Evans from the University of Nevada, concluded that the adults not only read to their children more when there were more books in the home, but that they also modeled using books. But she also echoed what others interested in optimal early language development recommend which is that talking with your children about the pictures, characters, actions, and language of the book, and the relevance to the child, is far more beneficial than just reading the words from beginning to end.

Talking to, and talking with, your children has been studied before. A report in 1995 by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, University of Kansas measured the number of words spoken in a home – for an hour each month from infancy to age four, and found a thirty million word gap, counting all the words adults spoke in the presence of their children, which correlated with a follow-up of school achievement in third grade. Children who had heard more words, obviously, did much better. This study also observed that the back-and-forth use of words, the conversation between adult and young child, was a contributing factor to a rich language base, thus better preparing children for success with school.

The newest work in this area has added MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) data to show just what happens in a young child’s brain when language is experienced as a give and take. John Gabrieli, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at Massachusetts Institute for Technology was the senior researcher of the study. As in other studies, the research team counted not only the number of words heard and spoken by the child, but also the number of conversational turns taken with his parents. This was accomplished by having every child, four to six-years-old, wear a recording device during his waking hours over two days. In the laboratory each child was read a story. Brain areas associated with language processing and speech production were identified as being more active for children with richer language exchanges with their parents than for the children who had fewer exchanges. The brains of children with more back and forth language interactions at home had more engagement with the story as measured by the MRI.

Rachel Romeo, the lead author of the resulting research paper suggests, “The important thing is not just to talk to your child, but to talk with your child. It’s not just about dumping language into your child’s brain, but to actually carry on a conversation with them.”

So in any language, even the language of music, what seems to matter most for building the brain for language processing is the interactive nature of what is being communicated.

Dr. Debbie

Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.

What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.

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