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Stanford study shows importance of parents talking directly to their toddler

toddler pointI don’t have children of my own, but I did live with a wonderfully chatty Siamese cat for more than twenty years. Though she couldn’t respond to me in English, I admit I often talked to my cat because I was convinced it helped her understand me. Though cats and kids are dramatically different, I can see why many new parents are eager to know when their child will begin to talk and what they can do to help him or her learn to communicate better.

That's why I was intrigued by this story on a Stanford research team that discovered a link between toddlers’ language skills and how often their caregivers talk directly to them.

Recently, I spoke with Anne Fernald, PhD, associate professor of psychology and the senior author of these studies, to learn what her research team’s findings mean for people who want to improve their toddler's communication skills.

In the first study (subscription required), the team of Fernald, research associate Virginia Marchman, PhD, and Fernald's graduate student Adriana Weisleder tracked the early language proficiency skills of 48 English-speaking, 18-month-old children from high and low-income families.

They found that toddlers from low-income families were significantly slower to develop language and vocabulary skills. This result is consistent with what researchers have known since the 1950s: Children from higher-income families often perform better in school than children from lower-income families.

Their study also led to two new findings. The first new finding was that this disparity in academic performance was already apparent when the toddlers were just 18 months old. The second new finding was that by the age of 24 months, children from low-income families lagged not just in their vocabulary, but were also six months behind children from higher-income families in their ability to process language.

"These rather discouraging findings motivated the next important question:  Where do these differences come from?” Fernald said.

The second study (subscription required), on which Weisleder was lead author, asked whether differences among children in their early language experience at home could help explain why they varied so much in their early language skills.

The participants were 29 nineteen-month-old toddlers from Spanish-speaking families. “Even within this group of toddlers who all came from disadvantaged families, there was a wide range of differences in the infants’ early language proficiency. We found that when a parent (or caregiver) talks directly to the child in an engaged and supportive manner, that’s what is correlated with the child’s language processing ability and vocabulary learning,” she said.

I found it remarkable that words that were not addressed directly to the infant, such as conversations nearby or words from a television or radio, had no significant effect on the development of the baby’s language or vocabulary skills. I asked Fernald why toddlers have such strikingly different responses to words that are spoken directly to them, versus words they overhear.

“An 18-month old child cannot understand complex syntax or abstract words,” Fernald said. But when an adult or an older child talks directly to the toddler at the right level - speaking in a way the young child can relate to - the child gets valuable practice in interpreting language.  “Those Baby Einstein videos don’t take the child into account, because they don’t engage the child directly. They don’t work,” Fernald said.

So, taken together, what do these two studies mean? “Socioeconomic status isn’t destiny,” Fernald said firmly. “The good news is that regardless of economic circumstances, parents who use more and richer language with their infants can help their child to learn more quickly.”

Holly MacCormick is a writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs. She is a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at University of California-Santa Cruz.

Previously: Imaging study shows little difference between poor readers with low IQ and poor readers with high IQCochlear implants could help developmentally delayed infants, says Stanford/Packard study and Researchers identify the neural structures associated with poor reading skills
Photo by Philippe Put

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