The way you talk to toddlers can determine how well they do in school throughout life. But not just any conversation will do.
Children from wealthier homes tend to score higher on academic achievement tests than kids of poorer homes. This isn’t all that shocking — greater access to quality education, for one, is going to pull those scores way up. What is surprising is that researchers have pinpointed language development in early childhood as one of the best predictors of later school success and one of the biggest sources of educational inequality.
Why? It all has to do with exposure to words. The right words. New research shows the kinds of conversations that parents and kids have — dialogue that they found differs depending on socioeconomic standing — change the course of a child’s academic career. Here’s what those high-achieving conversations look like.
The False Hopes in Having More Words
For a long time, experts believed it was the sheer quantity of words children were exposed to that dictated linguistic skills and later academic achievements. In the early 1990s, a small study spawned the now-infamous “30-million-word gap” theory, which claimed that, compared to middle-class kids, children growing up in poor households heard 30 million fewer words by age 3. Therefore, by being exposed to so many fewer words, it was theorized, these kids’ own vocabulary would be limited, which could hinder their performance in school.
This is not the case. According to a large body of research, the kind of language a child is exposed to during their first few years of life, when vital brain structures are forming and cognitive functions are developing, influence the words they learn.
By evaluating larger groups of children and eliminating racial bias (two common knocks against the 30-million-word gap study), researchers have learned that the types of conversations that parents have with kids can be neatly divided along socioeconomic groups. According to a 2017 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Parents making less tend to have fewer back-and-forth conversations with their kids than higher earners (incomes in this study ranged from $6,000 to $250,000 per year). This, in turn, may stymie their language development, which the researchers demonstrated with MRI scans taken of 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds’ brains as they were being read a story. The more interactive story time was, with two-way conversation between the child and reader, the more activity there was in the kids’ brain regions that process and develop language.
Based on their findings, the MIT scientists stressed the importance of not just talking to small children, but talking with them — something all parents have the ability to do, regardless of socioeconomic status. They say these interactive conversations, in turn, will do more for a child’s language skills and possibly their later success in school than just dumping a bunch of fancy words on them.
Other researchers have found more ways by which the frequency and context of parents’ interactions with children impact their cognitive and language development. Katelyn Kurkul, Ed.D., a child development professor at Merrimack College, began investigating this topic while a graduate student at Boston University. Specifically, she and her team analyzed how parents from different socioeconomic groups answered their preschoolers’ questions and how those explanations may affect their children’s ability to learn.
Why Mechanistic Language Leads to High-Achieving Kids
In their latest study, which is still working through the publication process, the researchers had 3- to 5-year-olds from low- and mid-socioeconomic homes, alongside their parents, play with a kid-friendly circuit set aimed at inspiring curiosity and nurturing problem-solving skills. By connecting all the pieces, a lightbulb would turn on. Naturally, the children had many questions for their parents about this strange new object. “We evaluated the parents’ answers to questions like ‘How does a switch work?’ which a 3-year-old could plausibly ask,” Kurkul says.
As for the kinds of questions the kids asked, there wasn’t much difference between the two socioeconomic groups. “They were very similar: information seeking and causal questions,” Kurkul says. “The differences came down to how the parents responded.” Specifically, parents in wealthier households used what the researchers call mechanistic language while parents in poorer homes did not.
Mechanistic language offers detail and explanation, helping the child gain understanding. For example, a mechanistic answer to “how does a switch work?” could be “The switch connects the circuit. Right now, the switch is open, and when you close it, you’re switching it to turn and it closes the circuit and powers it all the way through.” A non-mechanistic explanation, on the other hand, might simply be “you turn it on and off.”
The mechanistic language used in the first response — the type used more frequently by the wealthier parents in the study — gives children more information. Importantly, it also may spark more questions from kids, fostering the type of back-and-forth conversations that benefit their brain development.
Along with using more mechanistic language, the parents in wealthier households were also more likely to provide non-circular responses to their kids’ questions, whereas the parents of poorer households tended to give circular answers. Circular responses simply reiterate information from the original question without adding any new info. For instance, if a child asks where daddy went, a circular response might be, “daddy went out” — nothing new or informative there. However, a non-circular explanation would be “daddy is going grocery shopping so we can have milk to drink and food to eat” — much more informative for the child and much more likely to encourage ongoing dialogue.
Kurkul says that parents’ ability to provide non-circular responses and use mechanistic language may depend on their own knowledge and education levels. “Those two factors very much influence a parent’s own vocabulary and their exposure to vocabulary,” she says. Thus, they could explain why parents in low-socioeconomic households relied more heavily on circular responses — they may not have possessed the vocabulary to provide more non-circular answers.
“Also, parents with [mid- and high-socioeconomic] backgrounds are more likely to take their children to museums and expose them to other language-rich environments that kids in low-socioeconomic households may not have access to,” Kurkul adds.
Why Early Exposure to Language Matters
Past research has shown that regardless of which socioeconomic group parents belong to, some shortchange their kids on information because they assume their little ones aren’t ready for it. “They may be less likely to provide sophisticated responses because they think it doesn’t matter what they say — they believe their child doesn’t need to know or won’t understand at this point,” Kurkul says. “Our research shows that development readiness aside, by and large, kids crave high-quality explanations, even if they don’t necessarily understand all of the content.”
In other words, while they might not totally get what you tell them, they’ll likely pick up key pieces and connect some dots, making your detailed explanations totally worthwhile. For instance, if your child asks you how a circuit works and you explain it to them as best you can, “they may not grasp the entire concept, but they may understand that if the pieces all connect, the light bulb goes on,” says Kurkul. “But if you did not use mechanistic language, they probably wouldn’t even know that much.”
The biggest takeaway from all of this research is that no matter what level of education you’ve reached, what type of job you have, or how much money you make, to best help your child learn language and other knowledge that will prepare them for school, the quality of your engagement and conversations with them matters.
“It’s about quality, not quantity,” she says. “Focus not just on what you are saying but also how you are saying it. When your child asks a question, take two or three seconds to form an explanation in your brain before spitting something out. And don’t say ‘because I said so,’ as that does not help the child learn or see you as a credible informant.”
Also, if you don’t know the answer to a question, try not to say “I don’t know” because you’d risk hurting your kid’s curiosity. “In this age of on-demand information, parents can say ‘I don’t know…but let’s look this up,’” Kurkul says. “Then you and your child can learn together.”
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