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Talking to Infants Gives them a Headstart on School

Stanford researchers have shown that children whose parents engage them in frequent conversation get a head start on the language skills they'll use in school.

Anne Fernald and colleagues at Stanford University conducted experiments that revealed parents who talk to their infant more are improving their child’s  language processing skills, which in turn, helps them to learn vocabulary. Exposure to ‘child-directed speech’ – different to overheard speech – appears to sharpen an infant’s ability to process spoken language, critical to language development.

The findings are likely to be useful in addressing the gap in language development seen in children of lower socioeconomic (SES) status when they enter school. Decades of  research has revealed the sad truth that the children of lower-income, less-educated parents typically enter school with poorer language skills – testing as much as two years behind their more privileged classmates.

Last year, the Australian Government launched its national early literacy campaign, Let’s Read, to engage families, carers and professionals in reading with children from birth. With the finding that nearly one in five Australian children arrive at school developmentally vulnerable, the campaign focusses on building literacy skills very early in life. Research shows a child’s early literacy skills are a predictor of later literacy and academic achievement (www.letsread.com.au).

Professor Fernald’s work has shown that by 18 months of age, there are already significant differences in both vocabulary and real-time language processing in English-learning infants from higher and lower SES families. Her new study, collecting data from a small sample of 32 families so far, has shown that mothers who are learning new strategies for engaging verbally with their children are communicating more and using higher quality language with their toddlers than mothers who are not.

 "What's most exciting," said Fernald, "is that by 24 months the children of more engaged mums are developing bigger vocabularies and processing spoken language more efficiently. Our goal is to help parents understand that by starting in infancy, they can play a role in changing their children's life trajectories."

The Australian Government's Raising Children Network  offers the following tips on talking to babies and toddlers:

  • Just talk. Use everyday events like folding laundry, changing nappies or doing the dishes. Talk enough to keep the child cooperative and engaged. This works well with younger children learning their first words.
  • Listen . When children talk, even if it’s silly or hard to understand, use it as a chance to add information, encourage more talking, or to elaborate on what they said. ‘You’re talking about the little bird? Look at his pointy beak. What colour is his beak? He can fly high in the air.’
  • Be nice . Kids need our guidance to learn what’s OK to do. When they do something they shouldn’t, suggest a better or right way to do it. Avoid negative criticism. For example, a parent could say, ‘We write on paper, not on the walls’, instead of ‘Don’t do that!’ 
  • Give choices . Whether trying to get a child to do something like pick up toys or teaching them to use a spoon or fork, choices are important. Give choices that are real. ‘Do you want to eat your peas or your rice first? Do you want the blue or the green cup?’ 
  • Talk some more . It’s a big new world for kids, so help them by pointing out interesting things. ‘Look at the yellow bird in the sky! It reminds me of the story grandma told us about ...’. Talking about things is a great way to remember past adventures and prepare children for new experiences.

Image from freedigitalphotos.net