The importance of talking to your children

Research supports adult and child communication as one of the top literacy skill development strategies.

Did you know one of the most important ways to help children be prepared for school is simply to talk with them frequently? A famous study conducted in 1995 by researchers Hart and Risley, “The Early Catastrophe,” found that at just 3 years of age, children in low-income homes were on average exposed to 30 million fewer words than their peers in higher-socioeconomic groups. Furthermore, there was a tight link established between the number of words a child hears and their literacy development, often referred to as the “word gap.” The Hart and Risley study, and others completed since, have established a correlation between poor early literacy skills and lifelong academic challenges, as well as socio-economic disparities.

Simply put, the more words a child hears, the more prepared they are when they enter school. By the third grade, children who hear more words tend to have bigger vocabularies, be stronger readers and perform better on tests.

There is a specific reason why hearing those words before age 3 is so important. Early childhood is a critical time in children’s brain development; over 85 percent of our physical brain growth occurs in the first three years of life. The great news is that this important way to support your child’s brain development is completely free and can be done at any time and in any place.

The Thirty Million Words initiative recommends parents use the “three t’s” when engaging with their young children. Tune in, talk more and take turns.

Tune in by paying attention to what your child is communicating to you. This includes responding to babies coos and cries with spoken language. Get down on your child’s level. Maintain comfortable eye contact. Show your child you are interested in what they are saying.

Talk more with your child using descriptive words to build their vocabulary. Think of yourself like a sportscaster, narrating your child’s day. These don’t need to be exciting times, necessarily, but just adding words to the normal daily routines. “OK, it’s time to go grocery shopping. Let’s find our shoes. Your shoes are pink! My shoes are black.” And so on. Add “big” words to your speech. “You saw that big tree! It is humongous!”

Take turns by encouraging your child to respond to your words and actions. Think of a conversation with your child like playing a game of catch. You want the ball to go back and forth. Support your child engaging in the conversation. Ask open-ended questions instead of questions that have a yes or no answer. Reflect back to your child what you hear them saying. “It sounds like recess was really fun today! Tell me more about the game you played.”

As you are supporting your child’s growing literacy skills, it’s also important to be reading to them. Even babies benefit from time spent in laps reading books. Add daily reading to your child’s schedule. If you read to your child for 20 minutes daily from birth through age kindergarten, they will go to school with over 900 hours of reading time already logged. You do not have to read for 20 minutes straight—most young children won’t sit that long. Read when they are interested, for as long as they are interested, for little bits of time throughout your day and at routine times such as before nap and bed.

Many recommendations for school readiness can seem complicated and over-whelming, but this task— just talking with your child—is not only very important, but also very easy to do! Take time to talk with your young children today.

Visit Michigan State University Extension’s Early Childhood Development webpage for resources and information for families and children and to find upcoming events in your area.

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