Talking Quality and Young Children's Literacy


Drawing Together

Well known developmental psychologists Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff recently wrote a piece for Philly.com recalling a 30-year-old study sometimes referred to as the "30 million word gap study." In this study, researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that the number of words spoken to 3-year-olds whose families fell into the low-income bracket was found to be far fewer than the number spoken to children whose families were of higher incomes. Because of the impact of language on later literacy learning, much effort has gone into interventions to boost the number of words spoken to young children. But now, with several research studies to back them up, Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff are putting two new parameters into the mix: quality of the words spoken and the importance of a warm and caring relationship with conversational partners.

What does this mean? Well, for one, it means that sitting your kids in front of the television and hoping that being inundated by the words spoken on TV will somehow magically boost their language skills is not the way to help children learn language. Instead, research out of Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek's lab suggests that "conversational duets"--sustained back-and-forth conversations--are much more powerful for children's language learning. Think about it...when we talk with someone, as we might in a conversational duet, we have to pitch ideas in a way that is accessible to our conversational partners, we have to listen so that we can maintain some kind of synchrony within the conversation...in short, we have to be more than ourselves so that we can be a part of a pair. It seems logical, then, that children would blossom by putting their affective, social and cognitive selves through such a series of powerful moves. Perhaps, in the same way that the Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, says that play is a zone of proximal development--a context in which we can be more that ourselves, so too is a conversation between a caring adult and a child partner.

What is also interesting is that Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff report that if the conversational duet is interrupted by something like a phone call, language learning doesn't occur. Why this is so, is anyone's guess. Maybe for the child, it is like being in the midst of a puzzle (the puzzle of language) and trying to solve it; if you only get to move a few pieces before getting very far, then you simply can't "see the picture" and the whole effort collapses. Or, perhaps the very young feel a break in relationality when a piece of technological plastic is regarded as more important than the here-and-now of the conversational duet. Of course these are merely my speculations, but the impact of taking that phone call certainly gives one pause.

So, next time you are sitting with a preschooler in the midst of one of those conversational duets, remember the power of staying with it, even when phones want to draw you away. Also remember that those affective bonds combined with good conversation prove to be great predictors of later literacy success...and that those conversational duets might be the path to fewer hours at the homework table as that young child enters the world of school. That has to be a win-win situation for both adults and children alike!

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