Advise parents to talk with their kids, not just to them.
For years, pediatricians have discussed with parents the important role that reading to their children plays in the development of language skills. We have encouraged talking to children about things around them, describing objects and events, and telling stories. We have told parents to limit the amount of television young children are exposed to, citing evidence that large amounts of screen time have been linked to poor language development (as well as other negative effects, such as attention problems).
Now, a study by Zimmerman and colleagues1 indicates that we may need to promote more than just reading, narrating, and limiting television viewing. The Zimmerman study suggests that actually conversing with children is also important to the acquisition of language skills.
Device tracks effects that various kinds of speech have on language development.
Using data from digital language processors worn by 275 English-speaking children at home, the authors were able to examine the effects that adult speech, child speech, and television viewing have on language development. The software in each processor reported the number of adult words spoken in the vicinity of the child wearing the device, the amount of time the child was exposed to television, and the number of times that an adult conversed back and forth with the child.
On a random day once a month, parents were asked to start recording from the time their child woke up in the morning until the time he or she went to bed at night. Throughout the 6-month study, a speech language pathologist assessed each child on multiple occasions using the Preschool Language Scale, Fourth Edition (PLS-4). This validated measure gauges a child’s language and communication development. A subset of children who were determined to be representative of the larger group were recorded and assessed for an additional 12 months (18 months altogether).
Number of adult-child conversations correlates with language ability.
Not surprisingly, the authors found that increased exposure to adult speech was associated with better PLS-4 scores, and that greater amounts of television viewing were related to lower scores. Interestingly, they also found that PLS-4 scores significantly improved the more an adult and child conversed back and forth. Among those children who were followed for 18 months, there was a correlation between the number of adult-child conversational exchanges and the child’s PLS-4 score, even when the children’s starting language ability (as determined in the initial 6-month study period) was controlled for.
These findings may only suggest that children with better language abilities carry on more conversations, or that a yet to be identified common variable influences both language abilities and interest in conversations. However, the fact that later language ability appears to correlate with conversational frequency, even when initial language skills are controlled for, supports the importance of dialogue.
Although further investigation is needed, the Zimmerman study shows that back-and-forth dialogue may be a significant factor in language development. We should continue to encourage parents to read books to their children, tell stories, and limit television viewing. However, we should also explain the importance of actively involving their child in the learning process by asking questions and engaging their son or daughter in discussions of stories read or told. Language is inherently a tool for engagement with others. By using dialogue rather than just talking to children (which promotes a more passive learning style), parents can better foster their children’s developing language skills.