A+ Advice for Parents

Talking to Babies Key to Language Development

Q: I heard a pediatrician on TV say parents should use real sentences when talking to babies, even if they don't understand, and that toddlers should hear 21,000 words a day. How is this beneficial?

A: There's a lot of talk these days about the importance of talking to babies. Research shows that when parents carry on conversations with very young children -- even newborns -- it boosts their language development dramatically and helps them succeed in school later on.

A 1995 landmark study by University of Kansas psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley showed that the amount of positive conversation parents and caregivers have with children younger than 3 has a huge impact on their educational outcomes later.

They observed how parents of varying socio-economic backgrounds spoke to their children and found that by age 3, kids in upper-income families heard roughly 30 million more words than their poorer counterparts.

Their study launched others. Stanford University found that as early as 18 months, kids in different socio-economic groups show dramatic differences in their vocabularies.

States and localities created programs to help parents engage very young children with words. Providence, Rhode Island, launched Providence Talks. The program records what a child hears for a few hours each week and then coaches parents on how to build on the conversations.

Pediatrician Dana Suskind of the University of Chicago School of Medicine founded the Thirty Million Words Initiative to teach parents how to accelerate their toddlers' language learning. She's partnering with the Chicago Public Library on ways to help parents enrich the language they share with their young children.

In her book, "Thirty Million Words: Building a Child's Brain" (Dutton, 2015), Suskind says the quality of interaction between adults and children matters. Kids aren't born smart; parents help them through verbal interaction. She stresses the "Three T's": Tune In, Talk More and Take Turns, and she suggests a mantra for parents: "Don't just do it, talk them through it."

California's First 5 program advocates that parents talk, read and sing to children starting from birth to stimulate a baby's brain cells to grow and develop, says Adizah Eghan of Oakland-based GreatSchools.org.

In addition, Eghan offers these strategies:

Ask open-ended questions. Don't ask, "Do you want water?" Instead, ask, "What would you like to drink: water, milk or juice?" to get your child to use more specific words.

Turn your child's words into sentences. If she says, "Wah, wah," say, "Oh, would you like some water?" as you hand her the water. Then, intentionally say, "Here's your water."

Include toddlers in family discussions. Family time -- dinners, outings, even cleaning up the house -- is great for rich conversations that allow you to use new vocabulary and model sentences.

As phones and tablets hop into newborns' cribs, Suskind is concerned about how much talk and interaction all parents, no matter what their income level, have with their children.

"Technology isn't going away," she says, "but we have to figure out how to make it our friend. The baby's brain is still developed by talk."

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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