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Polly Palumbo, Ph.D.
Polly Palumbo Ph.D.

The Power of Talking to Kids: The Talk and The Evidence

Can teaching parents to talk more help kids do better in school?

The notion parents should talk to their babies and young children to stimulate brain development has become part of the modern parenting cannon. The more words kids hear early in life, the wisdom goes, the richer their vocabularies, language development, curiosity, critical thinking, intelligence and eventually school achievement. Some even have proposed more parent chit chat can narrow if not close the achievement gap between children in affluent versus disadvantaged households. The theory talk can provide plentiful cognitive benefits won the city of Providence, R. I. five million dollars from Michael Bloomberg's philanthropic organization to implement Providence Talks, an initiative to coach low-income parents to talk more to their kids. Talk may be cheap but it just got a little richer.

Let's hope it's valuable too. Let's hope the hype about talk isn't just talk.

At first glance the power of talk sounds reasonable. Not talking to kids seems unwise. The benefits of conversation seem obvious. If kids don't hear as many words, it makes sense their vocabularies suffer, their kindergarten readiness skills, reading, math and on and on… it's easy to imagine a slippery slope from a quiet infancy to high school drop-out or sub-par SAT scores.

A slippery slope indeed. Why? There's not much empirical evidence but we do know a few things about the power of talk.

Affluent and middle-class children hear a lot more words from their parents than do working class kids. University of Kansas child psychologists, Todd Risley and Betty Hart first documented this socio-economic word gap in their seminal study from the 1960s. They interviewed and recorded a small sample of 42 families. Eventually Risley and Hart published results in their 1995 book, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.* Apparently it took a while to code the massive amount of words:

They were looking for things like how much parents praised their children, what they talked about, whether the conversational tone was positive or negative. Then they waited till the children were 9, and examined how they were doing in school. In the meantime, they transcribed and analyzed every word on the tapes — a process that took six years. “It wasn’t until we’d collected our data that we realized that the important variable was how much talking the parents were doing,” Risley told an interviewer later. The Power of Talking to Your Baby, New York Times

Kids from families on welfare heard 600 words per hour, much less than those from working-class (1,200) or professional families (2,100). Further, Hart and Risley estimated by age 3 poor kids would have heard 30 million fewer words than their well-off peers. They also reported the more words children heard by age 3, the better they performed in school and the higher their IQs. Subsequent research documented a similar word-gap if not quite as large and also demonstrated it's possible to increase how much parents talk to their kids thanks to new technological devices to record and code spoken language.

Yet one very critical question still remains. Does increased talk significantly impact vocabulary, language development and school readiness not to mention intelligence or even later school achievement?

You can see how difficult it would be to answer this question in a tightly-controlled experiment. In fact this study can't be done in a lab. Parents talk everywhere and anywhere as anyone who's ever been stuck in a mommy and me class or supermarket line knows. At best a research program could attempt to teach parents to talk more then assess not only amount of words but then child language skills, academic achievement and other related outcomes. Even then there would be lingering doubts if it was really the increased verbalizing driving any changes or other factors. As the study would have occurred in homes, cars and elsewhere rather than a sterile lab, it would be necessary to control for a wide variety of variables that might explain any talk-related benefits.

Take intelligence. How smart it is to attribute extra IQ points and better grades to parents blabbing without considering how smart the parents are? The 1960s study most likely didn't assess parental IQ, few contemporary studies do let alone then. It's possible the more intelligent the parent, regardless of SES or education, the more they speak and also, by virtue of their genetic gifts, the smarter their kids.

Surely there are other explanations for the link between words heard and children's cognitive development. Go ahead, take a second to explain why kids whose parents have the time and patience to spend more time gabbing might also end up with kids who do better at school.

How about a relatively calm or nurturing home? One with parents who value curiosity and exploration? Parents who know about kids? There's evidence parents who know more about child development in general engage in more conversation with their kids and it's not a stretch to imagine their kids bringing home better grades. Many language experts now believe it's not just a matter of quantity but quality of conversation that counts. A longitudinal study directly testing quality versus quantity of parental speech, for instance, found the more sophisticated and varied the parent's speech, the better the preschooler's vocabulary. Not a single news report I scoured about Providence Talks mentioned this highly relevant study.

The media didn't stop to critically think much about the theory more talk promotes more critical thought. None cited any evidence suggesting the theory might be too simplistic. One did mention some expert doubted the Providence program would work.

Who knows, maybe Providence Talks and similar initiatives will help some kids if not close the word gap or the educational achievement gap. What do you think?

Remember to tell your kids about this in as many words as possible.

*In addition to skimming the book itself, I've read excerpts of the study results published in Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. I can't find any results published in peer-reviewed journals.

About the Author
Polly Palumbo, Ph.D.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D., is a former research psychologist and founder of Momma Data, a non-profit organization that tracks and fact-checks parenting media.

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