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What if we could diminish socioeconomic or racial divides, improve performance in school and even equalize kids' IQs with a little encouragement and training? Sounds a bit like a lofty, idealist educational experiment? Hardly. The answer may be in doing something most Inhabitots readers do on a very, very regular basis: talk to their kids. We all know the importance of talking to our babes -- describing how we mix the batter for pancakes, praising them for the first (and second and fiftieth) time they attempt a step on their own, simply letting them know about the daily activities and goings-on in our household. Or do we? Perhaps talking to our babies all the time is not as innate as we assumed, and should be encouraged and nurtured as a hugely important aspect of parenting.
Some decades-old research about the importance of talking to our babies and toddlers is being dusted off and put into action. Beginning in 2014, researchers behind a new program in Providence, Rhode Island called Providence Talks, will start educating families with regard to talking... and talking a lot... to their kids, especially when they are infants and toddlers. As winners of the recent $5 million dollar Bloomberg Philanthropies' Mayors Challenge, the city created Providence Talks, based on some truly fascinating research by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, who published a book almost two decades ago that charted how (and how much) parents of different socioeconomic backgrounds spoke to their babies. Read on to learn why it is so vital to engage your babies in conversation from day one of their lives.
Among the overwhelming results that Hart and Risley found after spending 2 ½ years observing 42 families and their conversations, as well as more than 6 years analyzing the data: Children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour. Children of working-class parents heard 1,200 words per hour, and children of parents in professional positions heard 2,100 words. Multiply those stats on a daily basis and you get this awe-inspiring number: by age 3, a poor child would have heard 30 million fewer words in his home environment than a child from a professional family.
Other stats: children from families on welfare not only had smaller vocabularies, they also added new words more slowly. Follow-up involvement in a study that included 29 of the original participating families showed that vocabulary use at the early age of three could be strongly tied with other advanced skill sets such as reading comprehension scores.
And while these facts and predictors alone should have been enough to encourage families all over to step up their everyday conversations to and with baby, it has been difficult to turn this research into an effective plan of action. For example, recording everyone’s conversations to measure how much they talk to their kids would be cost-prohibitive. Simply suggesting people talk “a lot” to their kids is also not a very measurable suggestion. Considering the data from Hart and Risley that a language deficit is passed down through a family (since a child’s level of development starts to level off when it matches that of his or her parents) — unless a parent receives new information on the importance of talking to his or her baby, that parent will likely talk to the next generation the way that he or she was spoken to as a baby.
Providence Talks will be making use of LENA, a Language Environment Analysis tool, which utilizes a voice recorder to record conversations for up to 16 hours. Two recent small-scale studies that involved LENA showed significant progress in improving the number of words used on a daily basis by caretakers and family members. Providence Talks will also work with the participating families to discuss strategies for improving their daily word count as well as community resources such as library activities that will also build on vocabulary skills.
So pat yourselves on the backs, Moms and Dads who often feel ridiculous as you narrate your family’s day to a mini-person who can only coo in response. Your message is being received. Now let’s help pass it on to others who have yet to receive it.