30 June 2009

When it Comes to Conversation With Young Children: More is Better

In a posting this week to the Early Ed Watch Blog, "UCLA Study: Give Young Children a Chance to Converse," Lisa Guernsey reviews the findings of a recent article in the journal Pediatrics that links young children's language skills to the amount of time that adults engage them in back-and-forth dialogue.

Past research, particularly the acclaimed Hart & Risley study, has shown that children's cognitive abilities are strongest among those whose parents use many words in speaking to them. That study emphasized the importance of exposing children not only to directions or comments about their behavior ("drink your milk") but also to new vocabulary words and descriptions of the world around them ("did you see that hummingbird?"). Today's study builds on those findings, showing what many child development experts have stressed for years -- that some of the strongest learning moments happen in interactions between caregivers and young children.

While vocabulary is important, "we find that the effect of the conversation is six times as great as the words," said Frederick J. Zimmerman, the study's lead author ...

The study is among the first to use small, unobtrusive recording devices that capture all of the sounds and words spoken to and around young children. ... Researchers report that the technology, called LENA ... allows researchers to learn about children's experiences at home, at school, or on the playground without having to plant an observer to take notes on the kids' every move...

Throughout the study, children's language skills were tested using an assessment called the Preschool Language Scale.

Results showed that with each increase of 1,000 words in adult speech, children's language skills also increased. And with each 100 conversational turns per day, the language score jumped further.

Parents and care-givers should take these results as evidence, Zimmerman said, of the importance of encouraging children to express themselves and engage in conversations. "One of the goals should be to engage the child in speaking," Zimmerman said. "In language, practice makes perfect."

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