Q: My daughter just started universal pre-kindergarten (UPK). At the open house, her teacher told us about new standards for our state and begged parents to help kids at home with skills. Single working parents like me don't have time or resources. This is the teacher's job. Does what I do at home really matter?
A: It matters. The teacher's delivery may have been awkward -- the new Common Core State Standards have many educators scrambling -- but research backs her up.
A parent's time and attention -- especially in early language development and setting expectations for success in school -- are powerful tools that can boost a kindergartner's academic success.
"Given all the roiling debates about how America's children should be taught, it may come as a surprise to learn that students spend less than 15 percent of their time in school," says Annie Murphy Paul, author of "The Brilliant Report," a popular newsletter on learning. She also has a forthcoming book, "Brilliant: The New Science of Smart" (Crown, 2014).
"While there's no doubt that school is important," she says, "a clutch of recent studies reminds us that parents are even more so."
Parents "don't need to buy expensive educational toys or digital devices for their kids in order to give them an edge. They don't need to chauffeur their offspring to enrichment classes or test-prep courses," says Murphy Paul. "What they need to do with their children is much simpler: talk."
But not just any talk. Murphy Paul points to research from psychology professor Susan Levine at the University of Chicago that shows "children who hear talk about counting and numbers at home start school with much more extensive mathematical knowledge that predicts future achievement in the subject.
"The amount of talk young children hear about the spatial properties of the physical world -- how big or small or round or sharp objects are -- predicts kids' problem-solving abilities as they prepare to enter kindergarten."
A 1995 landmark study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that professional parents talk more to their children than less-affluent parents, creating a 30 million "word gap" by the time children reach age 3.
"More recent research is refining our sense of exactly what kinds of talk at home foster children's success at school," says Murphy Paul. She points to one study showing that two-way adult-child conversations "were six times as potent in promoting language development as interludes in which the adult did all the talking.
"Engaging in this reciprocal back-and-forth gives children a chance to try out language for themselves, and also gives them the sense that their thoughts and opinions matter."
Don't underestimate the benefits of reading to your daughter for a few minutes each day. Reading aloud helps children build word-sound awareness, stimulates language and cognitive skills, and develops vocabulary and print knowledge. It also builds motivation, curiosity, memory and gives a child a chance to practice listening -- a critical learning skill. If all that weren't enough, a shared book at bedtime with your daughter will help her learn to love reading throughout her lifetime.
(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.)