Language Development in Infants

3 Apr

The push for universal preschool has focused a new spotlight on early childhood education.  Amidst the debates about how to fund and run pre-K for all comes the growing awareness that for many children, the preschool years come too late.  Research has shown that on average, a 3 year old living in poverty has heard 30 million fewer words than a child born into a wealthier family.  Are we just pushing down the age at which children will be deemed “below standard” in achievement?

I wanted to spend a little time looking at what all of this discussion and research is bringing up.  This post will focus on what these articles say meaningful language is.  Later on I’ll address what this might mean for the home and for schools. Articles exploring the word gap have been popping up everywhere, from research blogs to newspapers–even to blog posts by Hilary Clinton.  Children living in poverty show vocabulary delay as early as 18 months, which seems to come from the children hearing less language targeted specifically to them.

The studies point out that just listening to adults talk or watching the TV does not help children’s vocabularies grow noticeably.  The language must be directed to the child. Why?  It looks like it’s the interaction between the adult and child that develops language.  The adult is responding to the child (even something as subtle as the child’s gaze or expression.)  Later on, the child responds to the adult and they have a back-and-forth exchange.  It’s this responsive language that grows vocabulary.  This has some interesting implications for parents, caregivers, teachers, and the old maxim “children should be seen and not heard.”  🙂

Studies also found that a major difference in how much vocabulary children heard resulted in whether parents tended to respond to their children affirmatively or negatively.  Negative responses, such as “no!” “stop that!” or “not now!” were conversation closers.  They not only didn’t build vocabulary themselves, but they closed the door on continuing the conversation in a way that might help children to develop more words.  Affirmative responses, on the other hand, tended to grow the conversation and add words and syntax to children’s bank of words.

Chase-Lansdale and Takanishi (2009) provide an example of negative vs. positive interactions in a piece titled “Three Mothers and an Eggplant,” in their report titled How do families matter?:

The first mother wheels her shopping cart down the produce aisle, where her kindergartner spots an eggplant and asks what it is. The mother shushes her child, ignoring the question. A second mother, faced with the same question, responds curtly, ‘Oh, that’s an eggplant, but we don’t eat it.’  The third mother coos, ‘Oh, that’s an eggplant. It’s one of the few purple vegetables.’ She picks it up, hands it to her son, and encourages him to put it on the scale. ‘Oh, look, it’s about two pounds!’ she says. ‘And it’s $1.99 a pound, so that would cost just about $4. That’s a bit pricey, but you like veal parmesan, and eggplant parmesan is delicious too. You’ll love it. Let’s buy one, take it home, cut it open. We’ll make a dish together.’

We can see how the last mother not only builds vocabulary, but also knowledge about the world and engagement with new ideas.

Language development correlates strongly with children’s reading and writing skills.  The research of the past twenty years strongly suggests that focusing just on decoding, or spelling, or children’s education after age 5 (or even 3)  will fall short of what kids need to succeed.  On the other hand, responsive oral language and early, earlyintervention, could create ripple effects that we see in our school’s and society for years.

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