A recent New York Times article titled, “Quality of Words, Not Quantity, Is Crucial to Language Skills, Study Finds” reported:
"A study presented on Thursday at a White House conference on “bridging the word gap” found that among 2-year-olds from low-income families, quality interactions involving words — the use of shared symbols (“Look, a dog!”); rituals (“Want a bottle after your bath?”); and conversational fluency (“Yes, that is a bus!”) — were a far better predictor of language skills at age 3 than any other factor, including the quantity of words a child heard."
Does this mean that it's not important to encourage parents to talk more with their children? No! However, it is important to distinguish between talking AT a child, which is less effective, and talking WITH a child, which leads to language growth.
In the NY Times article, researchers were discussing Language Environment Noise Analysis (LENA) Technology. LENA includes a small language tracking device that functions like a word pedometer. It measures the amount of language a child uses, a parent uses, as well as the number of turn-taking exchanges. LENA provides data feedback that can be used to coach parents to speak more with their children. Researchers have proven that children from low income homes hear 30 million fewer words by age 3 than children from homes with college-educated parents. This "word gap" is one potential reason that children from poverty have more difficulty in school. The idea behind LENA is to increase the amount of language within homes.
Jennifer Preschern and Naomi Konikoff from Speech Language Literacy Lab have used LENA technology at their at-risk state funded pre-K program in Skokie, IL to help coach parents. We believe, as described in the NY Times article, that only increasing the amount of words that a parent talks AT their child is not enough.
Watch these two examples of parents engaged in dialogue with their children. Both parents are using the same relative amount of words. How are these interactions different? Which child has more developed language?
Child one's mother is mostly quizzing the child and talking at the child. By contrast, mother two is conversing WITH the child. Note how mother two is:
Repeating what the child says
Modeling longer sentences
Expanding what the child says
At SL3, we believe that providing data feedback to parents using LENA Technology is still a valuable tool for parent coaching. The data provides a non-judgmental way to show parents their impact. For many parents, this data opens their ears.
With data in hand, SLPs can provide parent coaching on how to use language-enriching strategies such as "Repeat, Model, Expand." When parents can see that their increased interactions have concrete effect on their child's language, it's motivating. We believe that LENA technology is a revolutionary tool for helping increase parent-child interactions.
So no, the number of times a parent talks AT a child is not the most important factor. However, parents who talk WITH their children make a huge impact in their children's life long success.