New research from MIT suggests that, rather than just exposing young children to more words, parents should try conversing with them more to boost their brain development.
A 1995 landmark study found that, by age 3, children born into low-income families hear about 30 million fewer words than their wealthier peers.
That raised concerns about the level of academic success that children from poorer backgrounds can ever reach if they already start kindergarten so far behind better-off classmates. But new research from MIT suggests that trying to close the “30-million-word gap” — whether through reading more books to toddlers or flipping on an educational TV show — may matter less to children’s brain development than the way parents engage them in conversation.
Released last month, the new study found a strong link between the number of conversational “turns” that parents and their children have — in which either starts a back-and-forth exchange — and the development of children’s language skills, such as vocabulary, grammar and verbal reasoning.
“The thing that really excited us … is the benefits of more conversational turns were just as strong in families of lower income or education (levels) as in families of higher income or education,” said John Gabrieli, a cognitive neuroscience professor at MIT and senior author of the study.
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Gabrieli worked with a team of researchers from MIT, Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania to study three dozen 4- to 6-year-olds in Boston. They scanned the children for brain activity while listening to stories and also reviewed audio recordings of interactions between the children and their parents at home.
The team found that the more often parents talked back-and-forth with their children, the stronger activity they spotted in areas of the brain associated with producing and manipulating speech. That proved true regardless of how much a family earned or how educated the parents were, meaning low-income children can possess the same verbal abilities as their more well-off peers.
The correlation between conversational turns and brain activity also was much stronger than how many words a child heard, suggesting that parents should focus less on the 30-million-word gap and instead talk more with — not just to — their children.
“To me, that’s kind of the optimistic note,” he added. “If we could encourage this in some way that would apply to everybody, that it’s not about reading level or the language you speak … it’s just about taking the time.”
The study suggested that conversations could be key to language development in children because their brains have to work through what the adult is trying to say and how to respond appropriately. And Gabrieli also noted that conversations offer moments for children and their parents to bond emotionally and socially.
“Conversation is such a powerful driver of so many human elements at once,” he said.
In Seattle and Washington, some organizations already seemed to grasp the importance of conversation in the early years.
The Parent-Child Home Program, for example, works with low-income, immigrant and non-English speaking parents to help them understand the educational value of playing and reading with their toddlers. Similarly, a University of Washington researcher recently enrolled low-income fathers in a program that uses video footage of their everyday interactions with children to show them how they can actively support their children’s early development.
Gabrieli, however, hoped to see more wide-ranging ways to help parents stimulate language development in their children. Research in artificial intelligence, he said, may one day achieve that goal.
“We’re not at a moment yet where there’s an interactive enough AI out there … but maybe that’s something we should think about,” Gabrieli said. “If that could be a bolster for families, that would be awesome.”