Talking with, not just to, children helps them learn

On the importance of translating the science of language development
kevinlopez, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
kevinlopez, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

As an academic, one of the most challenging, yet important tasks I am faced with is to be able to communicate research findings to the general public in a way that is digestible. Unfortunately, academics are not typically trained in this translational process. Sometimes we get too bogged down in the details and the work never breaks through to be taken up by the world of education or parenting. Other times, our research gets out, but if we are not careful about how we explain our results, parents and educators get a distorted view.

An example of the latter has lately been a big one in my field of study: I conduct research on the types of early experiences that promote children’s learning. The primary message I want to send to parents is that talking with children builds their vocabularies and knowledge. But as a result of the press around the documented “word gap”, or the large average differences in how much parents from high versus low socioeconomic backgrounds talk with their children, parents might feel pressure to continuously talk to their children.

We know from the science that this isn’t quite right. Our work shows that the quality of the talk matters more than the quantity, and that children themselves need to be engaged in the conversations for more learning to occur. For example, in recent work led by Rachel Romeo we found that children who engage in more conversations at home, not children who hear more talk, show more efficient brain processing when they listen to language and have better language skills. It’s the conversations that are key to learning.

“The quality of the talk matters more than the quantity and children themselves need to be engaged in the conversations for more learning to occur.”

Perhaps even more importantly, this isn’t all about learning words – it’s about building knowledge, as words bring with them concepts and ideas. For example, research by Elizabeth Gunderson and Susan Levine, researchers at Temple University and the University of Chicago,  shows that using more number talk with children, especially numbers beyond one, two and three, helps them learn math concepts before they even get to school. And, I don’t mean “teaching” them math using flash cards. I mean just using number words in general conversations, like when counting how many cheerios are on the high chair during snack time. These everyday conversations help children learn math!

Similarly, research by Robyn Fivush at Emory University, Elaine Reese at the University of Otago and their colleagues shows that you can build your children’s memory and ability to take somebody else’s perspective by simply talking with them about your shared past experiences, like your trip to the grocery store the day before, or what you saw when you were walking through the park.

“This isn’t all about learning words – it’s about building knowledge, as words bring with them concepts and ideas.”

And, similarly, our recent work, led by Kathryn Leech at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, finds that talking with children about what will happen in the future, like when you go to the doctor’s office tomorrow, helps to build the child’s planning skills. All of these abilities, recalling events from the past, planning for the future, and the ability to take others’ perspectives are essential for success in school.

All of this research first emerged in academic journal articles that parents may not have the opportunity or inclination to read. It is only by taking this next step—finding a way to translate it into terms that are manageable for lay audiences—that we can succeed in making a difference for parents. The above messages matter, as does this broader one: Parents, do not worry too much about flooding your child with talk. Just take those opportunities you do have to engage your child in conversations about topics they care about.

“All of these abilities, recalling events from the past, planning for the future, and the ability to take others’ perspectives are essential for success in school.”

The best part about having conversations with your kids is that you can do it anywhere – while you’re cooking dinner, on the bus, in the car, while you are taking a walk, in the grocery store, at bedtime – and through these conversations you can build a great connection with your child while also helping to provide them with the knowledge base to succeed in school and life.

My advice to academia is that we need to do more to help train researchers to translate their findings for the public. Indeed, many programs have promising courses, which is a step in the right direction, but may not be enough. We should consider ways to integrate more training into our PhD programs so that students not only learn how to effectively communicate their science, but consider it a regular part of the research process, and a part that is rewarded. After all, if we want our work to have an impact and improve child development, we need to get our messages into the hands of the people who are working with or caring for the children themselves.

“If we want our work to have an impact and improve child development, we need to get our messages into the hands of the people who are working with or caring for the children themselves.”

The Learning Sciences Exchange (LSX) is a cross-sector fellowship program designed to bring together journalists, entertainment producers, policy influencers, and researchers around the science of early learning. As part of the program, our fellows contribute to various publications, including New America’s EdCentral blog; BOLD, the blog on learning development published by the Jacobs Foundation; and outside publications. In this blog post, LSX Fellow Meredith Rowe reflects on the importance of disseminating research findings with the public, based on what she has learned from experts in other areas (policy, journalism, media) who are her peers in the LSX program.

 

Citations:

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Paul H Brookes Publishing.

Rowe, M. L. (2012). A longitudinal investigation of the role of quantity and quality of child‐directed speech in vocabulary development. Child development, 83(5), 1762-1774.

Gunderson, E. A., & Levine, S. C. (2011). Some types of parent number talk count more than others: relations between parents’ input and children’s cardinal‐number knowledge. Developmental science, 14(5), 1021-1032.

Fivush, R., Haden, C. A., & Reese, E. (2006). Elaborating on elaborations: Role of maternal reminiscing style in cognitive and socioemotional development. Child development, 77(6), 1568-1588.

Leech, K. A., Leimgruber, K., Warneken, F., & Rowe, M. L. (2019). Conversation about the future self improves preschoolers’ prospection abilities. Journal of experimental child psychology, 181, 110-120.

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