By Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff
Twenty years ago, a landmark study by renowned developmental researchers Hart and Risley revealed the now famous "30 million-word gap" - referring to the number of words spoken to low-income 3-year-olds vs. their more affluent peers. This finding mobilized numerous national, state, and local efforts - most focused squarely on how we can help parents read, sing, and talk to their children in an effort to narrow this gap. But the use of the science is missing the mark.
We now know it's not just how we talk to our children; it's how we talk with them. And we must adjust our efforts accordingly.
Urging parents to communicate at their children in an attempt to fill their brains with these extra 30 million words is not the right approach. Our labs, among others, have conducted three recent studies showing that the amount of language passing through children's ears does not predict later outcomes.
In one of these studies, we examined the kind of conversations that low-income mothers had with their 2-year-old children, as well as the number of words that moms used. We asked whether we could find clues in these conversations that predicted the children's language at the age of 3. Was the magic ingredient the amount of language spoken to the child? Or might a better predictor be the kind of fluid back-and-forth conversations some parents have with their children, which we call the "conversational duet"?
Answer: the conversational duet.
We must promote warm and caring relationships in which adults don't just talk to children, but instead engage in a back-and-forth interaction. When parents keep the conversation going, rather than simply trying to get their children to hear as many words as possible, they are preparing their children for later language and school success.
Another study, with former graduate student Sarah Roseberry Lytle, investigated word-learning by children who were directly engaging with others on television and video-chat platforms like Skype or Gchat. The study found that while children under 3 years old learn virtually nothing from hearing words on a television screen, their response to interactions on video chat were indistinguishable from in-person communication. TV language floats by even when children seem fully engaged, but the interactivity of video chatting enabled the other person to "duet" with the children, responding to what they were doing and saying in a way that allowed them to process and retain words at a higher rate.
Finally, a third study, with graduate student Jessa Reed, examined what happens when the conversational duet is disrupted. To test this, we had parents teach two words to children in each of two conditions. In one condition, the mother's teaching is interrupted by a phone call. In the other, the word is taught without a break. We found that children learn words in the uninterrupted condition, but not in the interrupted condition. When we break the back-and-forth interaction, children do not realize the benefits of the duet. Of course, this is not to say that parents can't take calls, but just to note that language learning doesn't happen when conversations are interrupted.
Taken together, these three studies, along with many more in the field, offer a cautionary tale. If we simply encourage more talking at or to children, it won't promote language learning. But if we help parents see the value in rich conversations with children, using language or gestures, children will learn to participate in conversations that foster language and school success.
Bottom line? If we want to truly move the needle on early language and literacy, we must jump from messages about the quantity of words children hear to messages about the quality of language within caring relationships. And that demands moving to messages that encourage the back-and-forth of conversational duets.