Want your kids to learn more words? Use your hands, study says

Want your kids to learn more words? Use your hands, study says

In the above-linked LA Times article written on June 24, 2013 by Amina Khan, readers learn about the importance of the quality of speech used with children.  We’ve heard much in the media lately about the quantity of the caregivers’ speech with children and the importance of reading daily to a child to build school readiness skills.  Researchers have found time and again that the more words an infant or toddler hears, the richer vocabulary the child will have and, therefore, the better prepared for school he or she will be.  But, scientists at the University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University in Philadelphia have found that nonverbal cues — looking at, pointing at or interacting with what you’re talking about — also have a strong influence on language development.  

Khan reveals the specifics of the study in her article: 

To test the idea, researchers videotaped 50 parents interacting with their toddlers during two 90-minute sessions recorded at ages 14 and 18 months. They had 218 adults watch 10 randomly selected 40-second clips from the recordings to try to guess the meaning of a bleeped-out word. Their success or failure  helped scientists judge the quality of the recordings – whether the parents were effectively using gestures and other social cues to clue their kids in.


They found a range of quality in various parents’ speech, from 5% to 38%. What’s more, when they revisited the children around 4.5 years of age – just in time to start kindergarten – they found big differences between the kids whose parents had used better nonverbal cues when they spoke. Taken together, the quality and quantity of parents’ verbal input from three years earlier accounted for 22% of the difference between various children’s vocabularies at 4.5 years of age, the authors wrote.


For me, the most crucial point Khan makes is when she tells us “even though the amount of talking parents did to their kids varied with their socioeconomic status, their use of nonverbal cues did not – making quality of speech an ‘individual matter,’ the researchers wrote.”  That means that infants and toddlers from middle or low socioeconomic status families have just as great of a chance of hearing words in high-quality learning situations, complete with parents’ use of eye gaze, gestures, facial expressions, volume control, tone of voice, and body movements to enrich what is spoken, as those from high socioeconomic status families.  

This is great news, since the quality of parents’ and caregivers’ speech is approximately half the equation in school readiness.  If parents and caregivers with middle and low socioeconomic status can increase the quantity of words spoken, infants and toddlers from these families would be more on par with children from high socioeconomic families in terms of school readiness.  Khan finishes up her article telling us that “the number words spoken might be important not because of the sheer total, but more because it raises the odds that a parent might use a nonverbal cue with an oft-repeated word.”  With this information, parents and caregivers should get their entire bodies, not just their talking muscles, involved when speaking to infants and toddlers in order to insure they are giving children the best early learning experiences as is humanly possible.


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