Words that really matter

The number of words children hear when they are young has a direct result on their academic success later in life.

Talking to your child about what you are doing helps increase the number of words they hear every day.  Photo credit: Pixabay.
Talking to your child about what you are doing helps increase the number of words they hear every day. Photo credit: Pixabay.

What is the “word gap?” It was a term that was developed out of a study done in the early 1990s when a team of researchers followed volunteer families from poor, middle class and rich incomes and recorded the sounds from the families’ homes. What these researchers found out when listening to the recordings was called the “word gap.” By age 3, children from wealthier families typically have heard 30 million more words than children from poor families.

Research done since the groundbreaking study shows that the word gap is directly related to an achievement gap between children from low-income families versus more affluent families. What does this mean? It means that children that come from lower income families are starting off behind before they ever enter school. However, just because this is what the research shows doesn’t mean that children cannot overcome these gaps.

Parents, family members and caregivers play a crucial role in developing children’s vocabulary and language. By following these simple suggestions by Michigan State University Extension, you can increase the number of words your child hears on a daily basis.

  • Talk, talk, talk: Talk to your child about what you are doing. Even babies need to be talked to. They may not understand your words, but they start to understand the tone and pitch of your voice as you say different words. Describe what you are doing in every day tasks.
  • Sing songs: Singing is a great way for young children to learn patterns and tones of language. You don’t have to be a great singer to help teach the songs to young children!
  • Details, details, details: Use words that describe when you talk to your child. For example, instead of saying “look at that truck”, try “look at that red truck, it is so big!” Learning these descriptive words helps to improve your child’s vocabulary.
  • Practice: Let your child practice talking, even if they pronounce things incorrectly. For babies, respond to their babbling sounds with real language.
  • Read: Use children’s books to let children experience different cultures, places, people and situations that they might not have an opportunity to experience. Talk about the new words that they learn in the books, use your finger to point out the new words and try to practice using those words in every day talk.
  • Story time: Let your child tell you a story! It doesn’t need to make complete sense, but it helps them be able to practice new words and thinking skills. If they get stuck, ask them, “what happened next” or “what did they do.” This is a great game to play in the car or on shopping trips!

The word gap can be overcome with easy, simple to use techniques that increase the number of words a child hears. This can help them overcome the achievement gap and lead to academic success later in life. The ABCs of Early Literacy is a fact sheet that lists ideas on how to help young children increase their early literacy skills. MSU Extension Early Childhood Family Book Sheets offer activities and ideas all centered around a children’s book.  You can download them for free at the MSU Extension Family Book Sheets site.  Are you a military family? Check out the 4-H Military Family Book Sheets that includes activities for those families experiencing deployment.

If you are interested in more ways to increase a child’s early literacy skills, visit the MSU Extension Events page for a list of workshops that are available around the state. PBS Parents also has some great resources on Language and Reading and you can search by age range to see what else you might be able to do as a parent to increase your child’s vocabulary. For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, visit the MSU Extension website.

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