We’ve all heard the advice given to parents and caregivers to “talk, read and sing” to babies and toddlers to get them ready for school and life. We hear experts remind us that it’s never too early to start talking, reading or singing to children and that the more we do these activities with children, the better off they will be. The landmark study from Hart and Risley in 1995, titled “The 30 Million Word Gap” , told us that children from disadvantaged homes, poor families and certain family backgrounds hear 30 million fewer words than those from privileged backgrounds or wealthy homes. The study informed us that those children who hear far fewer words will be far less prepared for school than those who heard more words.
Recently, a study from Harvard found that it isn’t just the number of words a child hears before his or her third birthday that makes the biggest difference in school success, but it is the turn-taking that parents and caregivers do with babies and toddlers. We now know that children whose parents and caregivers engage in back-and-forth conversations with them are better prepared for school than those children whose parents and caregivers “talk at” or “speak to” them without engaging in turn-taking. Babies and toddlers who participate in the back-and-forth, flowing and pleasurable communication with their parents and caregivers learn more easily, have richer, bigger vocabularies and learn to read earlier and more easily than those who do not participate in conversational and turn-taking activities with parents and caregivers.
But, as we know, conversing with a 1-month old baby looks very different than conversing with an 11-month old, which in turn looks very different than conversing with a 21- or a 31-month old child. It’s not enough for parents and caregivers to be advised to “talk, read and sing to your baby or toddler.” It’s bland advice that will not prepare all children equally for school by the time they are 36 months old.
So, what should we do? We need to give advice to parents and caregivers that reflects the ages and stages of a baby or toddler in their care in order to have the greatest impact on the child’s brain development and school readiness. We need to encourage grown-ups to observe when a baby or toddler is in a “listening mood” and ready to hear language, which looks very different at 3 months of age versus 23 months of age. For example, a 3-month old may have just woken from a nap and is awake, but is not alert and ready to hear a story. Or, in the reverse, a 23-month old may be exhausted and ready for a nap, and, therefore, is not ready to hear a story. When thinking about babies and toddlers taking turns and staying engaged, we need to support parents and caregivers in observing that a baby at 6 months of age will kick its feet with a smile on its face to request that a conversation or interaction continue and then provide specific tips as to how to keep the conversation with a 6-month old going. A 26-month old child will stay in a chair to let grown-ups know that he or she wants the story (and the questions the grown-up is asking about the story) to continue. If he or she doesn’t “stay put,” we need to offer specific tips about how to keep the toddler engaged in the story and questions-asking activity.
The words we choose or how we use them matters greatly at different ages and stages. Parents and caregivers can use the phrases “Open them” and “Close them” while opening and closing their own hands in front of a 4-month old baby to help build understanding of the words “open” and “close.” Parents and caregivers can gently open and close Baby’s hands while saying the phrases “Open them” and “Close them” to Baby. Turns are expected be taken in this type of “conversational” activity for about 30 seconds with a child 4 months of age. However, with a 24-month old child, parents and caregivers can use questions such as “Can you open the door so we can go to the park?” or directions such as “Close the lid on the toy box” in the context of conversations in order to build language and literacy skills for school readiness. Moreover, this 24-month old child should be able to, and be expected to, interact and play in activities involving opening and closing boxes, doors or containers with a play partner for 10 minutes. A by-stander should be able to describe these 10 minutes of interactive play with a grown-up as easy-going, effortless and enjoyable.
In order to truly prepare babies and toddlers for school by the age of 36 months, parents and caregivers need more age-specific guidance than most current advice gives them. Parents and caregivers need to understand how to converse and share language, social skills and emotions with a 2-month old, a 12-month old and a 22-month old. Some may think this will bog parents and caregivers down with too much information, so they stick with the weak advice to “talk, read and sing to your child.” But, if we truly want all children to be ready for preschool, pre-K and beyond, then we must provide parents and caregivers with specific, rather than insufficient, advice.
All babies and toddlers, regardless of their socio-economic status or family background, depend on their parents and caregivers to be armed with the best information available at the present time from such fields as early childhood development, neuroscience and speech-language pathology in order to be successful in school and life!