Listen up, expectant parents! You want to raise a child who is well adjusted and socially comfortable, and who does well in school, right? Well, a study that’s been in the news these days says that the single most important thing you can do to help your child’s learning is to talk, talk, and then talk some more.
Sounds easy, right? And it is. Doctors Nancy Hart and Todd Risley found in their 1995 study, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of American Children, that the more words a child hears before age three, the more successful he or she will be both socially and academically. The kids who got a head start by hearing lots of words before age three stayed ahead all through their school years, and those who heard fewer stayed behind. Simple as that: There is a direct correlation between the amount you talk to your child and his or her success in school.
Our August 2011 post, Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me, focused on Hart & Risley way back before it was hot. We’re thrilled to see that this study is now getting a great deal of attention from both educators and policymakers. Even President Obama mentioned it in a recent speech on economic policy in which he talked about the importance of addressing the disparity in the number of words that families expose their children to.
Two big cities have jumped on the Hart & Risley bandwagon. The University of Chicago’s Thirty Million Words initiative is “an innovative parent-directed program designed to harness the power of parent language to build a child’s brain and impact his or her future.” It’s been closely watched by policymakers who want to see if bridging the word gap will measurably increase the school success of Chicago children. In a similar program in Rhode Island, called Providence Talks, the city of Providence was awarded a huge grant by the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge to measure the number of words its children hear before the age of three, and then to follow up by coaching families on how to “increase family conversation” and thereby improve kids’ readiness for and success in school.
These and other initiatives that are cropping up around the country are grounded in the Hart & Risley research. Add to this the wealth of studies that clearly show that babies hear and learn language before birth (check our sidebar for a thorough listing). Further contributions to this research are currently being made by Chinese and Canadian scientists, as this article discusses.
A recent TIME Magazine article by Lisa Guernsey ties all of these findings together very nicely. Calling this rich field of study “the hot new thing in early education,” Guernsey says it’s all about words. “Talk to your baby and you close the education gap, goes the theory. Early language experiences, myriad studies show, help form the foundation for children’s learning and their success in school.”
What did we tell you? It’s never too early to talk to your baby! Clearly, there is no better time to start talking to your baby than when she is in your womb. The words you say now will contribute to your child’s overall language development, and strong language skills translate into academic success. It doesn’t even matter what you feel like telling your baby-to-be, because the sheer number of words is the decisive factor, according to Dr. Risley. But so many studies have shown that rhythmic, rhyming language is especially well absorbed by the baby in the womb, and what better way to deliver it than by reading nursery rhymes, or Dr. Seuss, or any fun, simple rhyming story?
Choose a book that makes you happy, whose colorful illustrations stimulate your feel-good hormones, and whose words help you to make a deep connection with your child. The combination of the engaging language and your familiar, loving voice will enhance the bond between you and your little one. And by creating a relationship grounded in caring dialogue, you will naturally foster your child’s wondrous innate drive to explore, understand, and communicate with her world.