Researchers presented a new study at a White House conference on "bridging the word gap" Thursday, and their findings challenged the decades-long belief that when it comes to teaching children language skills, the key is more words.
"It's not just about shoving words in," Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University and the study's lead author, told The New York Times. "It's about having these fluid conversations around shared rituals and objects…That is the stuff from which language is made."
The new findings build on a 20-year-old education study which set the standard for practices to help lower-income children catch up with their more affluent peers. In that study, researchers discovered that children from wealthier families would hear 30 million more words than their poorer counterparts before ever setting foot in school. Thus began a push for programs and reminders to parents: Talk, talk, talk.
While even that 1995 study noted the importance of tone and variety of vocabulary used with children, researchers say the new findings hammer home the idea of quality over quantity. The study's authors found that the type of communication parents used with their two-year-old children accounted for 27 percent of the kids' variation in language skills one year later.
"When we talk about gaps, our natural tendency is to talk about filling them,"Dr. Hirsh-Pasek said. But, "you need to have the foundation there first if language isn't going to just roll off the child's back and become background noise."