February 11, 2021 - How The Way You Speak to Young Children Affects Their Speech Development

February 11, 2021 - How The Way You Speak to Young Children Affects Their Speech Development

As I was reading through some of blurbs of articles written in the past few years, one in particular caught my attention: “Talk more to raise children’s skills.”  Working (and living) with young children, I was interested.  I like talking AND I like increasing the skills of children!  

Researchers from the University of York (d’Apice, Latham, and von Stumm) performed a quite large (100+ children) naturalistic observational study to look at how the speech and language of adults impact the skills of children.  [A naturalistic observational study means that the subjects are observed in their natural setting; in this case, the home.]  The study utilized a LENA (Language Environment Analysis system) to record the verbal interactions between children (aged 2-4yo) and their grown-ups.  

The study confirmed findings from previous studies.  Quantity of adult speech was positively associated with a child’s cognitive ability (meaning, that as speech went UP, cognitive ability went UP).  The study also found that the lexical diversity of the adult (the uniqueness of speech) was positively associated with the lexical diversity of the child.  However, more adult speech did NOT demonstrate an increase in child lexical diversity, nor did the adult lexical diversity increase the child’s cognitive ability.  

From these results, we can see that talking to our children is (obviously) a great thing as it improves their cognitive abilities.  Also, the more lexically diverse our speech, the more diverse speech will be of our children.  So talk MORE and use more COMPLEX words (even if you are worried that they won’t understand everything that you are saying!)!

Okay, so now we know this but what do we do?  While entertaining, board books are not known for their length or complexity!

You can:

  • Narrate your day using ‘grown up words’
  • Try to have (appropriate) conversations around your young children (even though this is hard with all of the interruptions!)
  • Read MORE!
  • Read books with more complex themes and words (e.g., Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, etc.).  They may not understand the themes and will probably ask you to explain a million things, BUT keep in mind that when you are shaping little brains, lots of words are needed!

Another important finding of this study was about positive parenting versus critical parenting.  The study found that positive parenting (e.g., responsiveness, encouraging self-expression) were associated with LOWER levels of externalizing behaviors (e.g., acting out).  However, critical parenting was associated with MORE internalizing behaviors (e.g., depression, anxiety, withdrawal).  [Probably something that we all realize as parents, teachers, and providers, but it’s always a good reminder to get!]

If we have the goal of improving our children’s language, cognitive ability, and behavior, we now have more information to help us reach our goal.  Talk MORE, talk BIGGER!

Niki Wood, PsyD

The study: d’Apice, K, Latham, R.M., & von Stumm, S. (2019).  A Naturalistic Home Observational Approach to Children’s Language, Cognition, and Behavior.  Developmental Psychology, 55(7), 1414-1427.

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