You probably know that talking to your baby or toddler helps her develop language skills. But not just any conversation will do.

The way parents and other adults talk to young children can actually affect how well children do in school throughout their lives, according to new research.

What makes the difference?

Words. The right words.

Education experts once believed that the sheer number of words children heard spoken to them helped develop their language skills, and later their performance in school.

A small study in the 1990s spawned what became known as the “30 million word gap” theory. The idea was that children in poor households heard 30 million fewer words by the time they were 3 years old. Because of this, the theory went, their vocabulary would be limited.

But a 2017 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a large body of other research, has underscored the importance not of the sheer number of words that children hear, but the quality of the interaction.

This research sheds light on the importance of not just talking TO small children, but talking WITH them. This back and forth conversation, researchers say, will do more for a child’s language skills, and possibly their success in school, than just speaking a lot of words.

Some key findings of this research:

  • The more interactive a story time, with back-and-forth conversation between the child and reader, the more activity was observed in the part of the child’s brain that processes and develops language.
  • Lower-income parents tended to have fewer back-and-forth conversations with their children than those in more affluent families.
  • Researchers at Merrimack College identified the importance of language that offers detail and explanation, helping a child gain understanding. They called this mechanistic language.
  • For example, the researchers said, children who played with a kid-friendly circuit set asked questions about what makes a light turn on. A mechanistic answer to “How does a switch work?” could be “The switch connects the circuit. Right now, the switch is open, and when you close it, you’re switching it to turn and it closes the circuit and powers it all the way through.” A non-mechanistic explanation might simply be “You turn it on and off.”
  • They also stressed the need to offer new information in response to children’s questions. For example, if a child asks, “Where did daddy go?” the parent might say, “He went to work to earn money so we can buy groceries.” A more simplistic, and less helpful, type of response to the same question, such as “Daddy went out,” was called a circular response. This sort of response just repeats information from the child’s question and does not add anything new.


What should parents take from this?


  • Don’t assume that children aren’t old enough to understand an explanation. Even if they are not able to fully grasp a concept, they need good, high-quality explanations and may grasp enough pieces to help them understand.
  • When your child asks a question, take a few moments to form an explanation. Try not to use simplified answers like “Because I said so,” or “I don’t know.” If you don’t know, suggest that you and your child find out together.
  • During story time, ask children open-ended questions about the story as you read, and listen to their answers. Did that ever happen to you? How do you think the character feels? What do you think about the ending?
  • Don’t wait for children to ask questions. You can encourage these sorts of conversations with children throughout the day, as you’re preparing a meal, driving to the store, visiting a playground or taking a bath.


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