One of the most important things parents can do to enhance their child’s intellectual development is also one of the simplest: talk. A landmark study done in 1995 demonstrated a direct relationship between the quantity of parental talking with children and academic and intellectual success. The authors found stark differences in the amount of language young children were hearing in three different groups of families: professional, working class, and welfare recipients:
In professional families, children heard an average of 2,153 words per hour, while children in working class families heard an average of 1,251 words per hour and children in welfare-recipient families heard an average of 616 words per hour. Extrapolated out, this means that in a year children in professional families heard an average of 11 million words, while children in working class families heard an average of 6 million words and children in welfare families heard an average of 3 million words. By age four, a child from a welfare-recipient family could have heard 32 million words fewer than a classmate from a professional family.
And this, according the TMW (Thirty-Million Words) Initiative, has important implications for intellectual development and academic achievement:
The children who heard more words were better prepared when they entered school. These same kids, when followed into third grade, had bigger vocabularies, were stronger readers, and got higher test scores. The bottom line: the kids who started out ahead, stayed ahead; the kids who started out behind, stayed behind. This disparity in learning is referred to as the achievement gap.
Vohr’s team was able to sort through data on 33 families recorded for three days each – once just after a baby’s birth, once a few weeks later and once at 7 months. Home recordings were done only on days both parents were home.
They found that the majority of words infants heard, directed at them or in the background, came from mothers. Also:
• About one-quarter of vocalizations from infants got an adult response.
• Those responses came from moms alone more than 70% of the time, from both parents 18% to 23% of the time and from dads alone just 6% to 12% of the time.
• Moms responded more often to girls than boys. Dads responded more often to boys, but the difference was so small that the researchers said it was not significant.
Last month, The PediaBlog highlighted reading as an easy way to get young children the words they need to hear — beginning in infancy — with the AAP’s Books Build Connections Toolkit. We also shouldn’t forget the power of listening to and eventually playing music in the function of and communication within a growing child’s brain.
So parents (especially dads): talk, read, and sing to your children. And do those things a lot!