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Want to help your children develop speech and language? Talk to them. A lot.

November 18, 2014

Did you know that one of the greatest influences on your child’s intelligence and academic success is the way (and how much) you speak to them?

Even more important than education and socioeconomic factors, speech that takes place between you and your child from birth to 3 years of age is one of the most influential factors affecting a child’s language abilities and IQ.

There are a couple of groundbreaking studies that have illuminated some important features of children's speech and language development.

(See here and here for more detailed information).

Here are a few things we’ve learned:

Children generally begin to speak during a similar time frame, and language structure and usage is generally well developed across various groups. However, there are vast differences between families when it comes to the number of words spoken per hour in their home. Children whose families speak more words per hour develop a larger cumulative vocabulary by age 3. A greater cumulative vocabulary then translates to a more robust command of speech and language, which accounts for greater intellectual and academic capabilities.

Families who use less words tend to stick mostly to speech that instructs or provides discipline to the child, with less “extra talk” (conversation that is outside the limits of governing and instructing children). “Extra talk” tends to be more complex, varied and more positive, and is powerfully correlated to a child’s later verbal sophistication.

In other words, QUANTITY MATTERS. Children need to hear a lot of words often and be exposed to a great variety of different words in order to amass a vocabulary that they will utilize in acquiring other knowledge.

But that’s not all. QUALITY MATTERS, TOO. We know from several scientific studies that it’s not only hearing a lot of adult speech that fosters language development. Otherwise it would seem that watching television would help speech and language development, but we know that it doesn’t. Simply passively listening to language doesn’t seem to do the trick. The key for speech and language development is this: the amount of two-way conversations between and adult and child.

That’s one of the reasons your pediatrician recommends that you read to your children every day. It’s not only listening to the words being read aloud that builds your child’s language skills. The exposure to new words and ideas is part of it, but it’s also the interaction that you and your child are engaged in as you embark upon the journey of a story that’s important. You ask your child questions about what they see on the page, ask them to identify the colors or objects in the pictures or they begin to correlate certain pictures with certain words, and that type of two-way communication is vital.

When you engage in active conversations with your child, meaning you’re talking with them instead of simply to them, what you are doing is providing a place for your child to try out their developing language skills. It is a safe place to make mistakes and try again as a parent guides the child through this new territory. And as the old saying goes, “Practice makes perfect.”

The more opportunities you have given your child to expand their horizons through speech and communication, the better they will become at expressing themselves and sharing ideas with others, which leads to a greater capacity for learning in a variety of areas of life.

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