To close lan­guage gap, con­verse with ba­bies

In­ter­ac­tion means more than num­ber of words, re­search sug­gests

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Liz Bowie

Two decades ago, a landmark study found a 30-mil­lion-word gap be­tween the num­ber of words spo­ken to chil­dren liv­ing in poverty in the first three years of life and those from well bet­ter-off fam­i­lies.

Par­ents across the coun­try were told to talk more to their ba­bies, to nar­rate the ins and outs of their days, in an at­tempt to ex­pand the child’s lan­guage abil­ity, and, ul­ti­mately, their aca­demic achieve­ment.

But re­cently re­leased re­search gives a finer un­der­stand­ing of the lan­guage gap be­tween chil­dren of dif­fer­ent eco­nomic back­grounds. While the re­search is not de­fin­i­tive, it sug­gests that the num­ber of words spo­ken each day is not as im­por­tant as the con­ver­sa­tions par­ents have with their chil­dren. Chil­dren with a high level of back-and-forth with their par­ents had brains with a greater abil­ity to be rewired or change and they scored higher on lan­guage tests.

More em­pha­sis should be given to en­gag­ing chil­dren in a back-and-forth dis­cus­sion, in ask­ing ques­tions and ex­pect­ing re­sponses.

Help­ing par­ents un­der­stand the im­por­tance of con­vers­ing with their tod­dlers to de­velop their vo­cab­u­lary and think­ing has been a stan­dard prac­tice at an early child­hood de­vel­op­ment cen­ter at Hawthorne Ele­men­tary School in Mid­dle River.

The Judy Cen­ter, one of many in the state, takes chil­dren from birth to 4 years old in a full-day care pro­gram that in­cludes home vis­its by staff, play­groups for chil­dren that in­clude their par­ents, and train­ing for fam­i­lies in how to en­cour­age their child’s de­vel­op­ment.

“Those first four years of life are so im­por­tant. That is when a lot of the brain de­vel­op­ment hap­pens. That is go­ing to make things bet­ter for their en­tire school ca­reer and their en­tire life,” says Rebecca Lind­sey, the fa­cil­i­ta­tor at the Judy Cen­ter, which is short for Ju­dith P. Hoyer Early Child Care and Ed­u­ca­tion En­hance­ment Pro­gram.

“It is in the first three years that we need to reach the fam­i­lies and give those kids all the chance they can get.”

Lind­sey said par­ents have told her the train­ing is mak­ing a dif­fer­ence in the way they talk and in­ter­act with their chil­dren, and the amount of time they are spend­ing with them.

“We have been do­ing it that way for years. … We know through prac­tice that the back-and-forth is what they need,” said Marisa Con­ner, the Bal­ti­more County Public Li­brary’s youth and fam­ily en­gage­ment man­ager. “It has been kind of com­mon sense. This re­search spells it out.”

The li­brary’s Sollers Point branch in­stalled an out­door play­ground last fall with pan­els that re­mind par­ents that “talk­ing is teach­ing.” The play­ground was sup­ported par­tially by the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion and the Op­por­tu­nity In­sti­tute, which are try­ing to pro­mote the im­por­tance of early brain and lan­guage de­vel­op­ment and to get par­ents to “talk, read and sing” with their chil­dren as soon as they are born.

The new re­search by Rachel Romeo, a Har­vard and Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy grad­u­ate stu­dent, stemmed from a de­sire to un­der­stand a per­plex­ing, decades-old ques­tion in ed­u­ca­tion: Why do higher-in­come stu­dents on av­er­age do bet­ter aca­dem­i­cally than lower-in­come stu­dents, de­spite many at­tempts to in­ter­vene and change that tra­jec­tory?

Work­ing with other re­searchers, she wanted to delve into how a child’s ex­po­sure to lan­guage trans­lated into lan­guage skill and abil­ity.

Romeo in­vited fam­i­lies from dif­fer­ent eco­nomic back­grounds to take part in a study that first gave the chil­dren, ages 4 to 6, stan­dard­ized tests to look at ver­bal and non­ver­bal skills. Then the chil­dren wore de­vices that recorded their speech and that of their par­ents on two week­end days.

When com­puter soft­ware an­a­lyzed the record­ings, it looked for “turns” in the con­ver­sa­tion, those mo­ments when there was a back-and-forth be­tween the child and the adult.

Some of those par­ents also agreed to let their chil­dren un­dergo a brain scan as they lis­tened to sto­ries. The amount of brain ac­tiv­ity was greater in chil­dren who had been recorded hav­ing more con­ver­sa­tions with their par­ents.

“What we found is that it didn’t mat­ter the sheer amount of adult speech the chil­dren heard. The back-and-forth turns were strongly linked to brain ac­tiv­ity,” Lind­sey said.

She be­lieves that the word use in fam­i­lies with a lot of con­ver­sa­tion be­tween adults and chil­dren may stim­u­late the brain to grow and learn, caus­ing higher aca­demic achieve­ment. But Romeo ac­knowl­edged that the study in­volved only 36 chil­dren, too small a sam­ple to be con­clu­sive, and it proved a cor­re­la­tion be­tween the brain ac­tiv­ity and talk­ing with young chil­dren, but not cau­sa­tion.

Still, Romeo said, as “far as we know this is the first study that links lan­guage ex­po­sure to mea­sures of brain de­vel­op­ment.”

The re­search also re­in­forced the no­tion that lan­guage ac­qui­si­tion, not in­come, can de­ter­mine a child’s fu­ture. Low-in­come chil­dren in the study who were hav­ing a lot of con­ver­sa­tions with their par­ents did as well in ac­quir­ing lan­guage as chil­dren from wealthy fam­i­lies.

“The con­ver­sa­tion helped them beat the odds a lit­tle bit,” Romeo said. “It is ex­cit­ing. It dis­putes the poverty-is-des­tiny story.”

Higher-in­come par­ents are more likely to have knowl­edge of child de­vel­op­ment and un­der­stand what is im­por­tant for them to ex­pe­ri­ence.

“They pro­vide their child with the cog­ni­tive stim­u­la­tion the brain craves,” Romeo said.

In ad­di­tion, they are more likely to place im­por­tance on the ear­lier years of school­ing.

Karen Cloth­ier, a grad­u­ate re­searcher in the Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity depart­ment of cog­ni­tive sci­ence, said she would like to see more re­search on why and how the cor­re­la­tion ex­ists be­tween con­ver­sa­tions or “turns” be­tween par­ent and child and aca­demic achieve­ment.

“Is there some other fac­tor that is the go-be­tween be­tween turn-tak­ing and the ver­bal skills?” Cloth­ier asked.

“I think it is an in­ter­est­ing re­sult, but it is the first step in a long line of ques­tions to be an­swered,” she said. “I think there are some finer-grain char­ac­ter­is­tics of these con­ver­sa­tions that have more turn-tak­ing that are the ul­ti­mate rea­son.”

Steven Hicks, an as­sis­tant su­per­in­ten­dent for early child­hood de­vel­op­ment at the Mary­land State Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion, said in a state­ment that the study val­i­dates what has been known in a prac­ti­cal way for years.

"This study val­i­dates what we have known for years about the crit­i­cal need to not only pro­vide vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren with rich vo­cab­u­lary ex­pe­ri­ences” but the im­por­tance of fam­i­lies em­pha­siz­ing the de­vel­op­ment of strong com­mu­ni­ca­tion, cog­ni­tive and so­cial skills, Hicks said.

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