Let’s imagine for the next few minutes that you’re about to have a baby. Let’s also imagine that you want to give your baby the biggest possible advantage in school a few years from now, but you don’t have a lot of money to spare. What can you do?
The insanely simple answer? Talk with your kids. For example:
From birth, your baby’s brain acts like a jigsaw puzzle made of sponges, soaking in information and making connections to what it already knows. As your baby is exposed to more information, it learns more about the world. When you talk to and later converse with your child, he or she learns vocabulary, syntax, grammar, and makes connections between various concepts. Your child brings this base of experience to school, which helps predict how well your child will do in school.
In a two-and-a-half-year study [automatic PDF download here] that examined these connections, researchers found vast differences in the number of words children heard their parents use. On the low end, children heard an average of 616 words per hour. On the high end, children heard 2,153 words per hour. By age three, this accumulated to a difference of 30 million words. When researchers visited these children again at age 9 or 10, they found strong associations between then number of words heard in the first few years and performance on language tests.
That’s right, the simple, free act of speaking to and around your kids can impact their performance in school years later.
Here’s where things get tricky – what do you do if you’re someone who holds the mistaken belief that only teachers can teach our kids? First, keep in mind that our children start life not only equipped to learn, but are actively trying to learn. In their first few years of life, children spend most of their time with their parents. During that time, they learn so much more than we imagine – right from wrong, what to eat, how to keep themselves clean, and a variety of other useful skills. They all improve with experience, and you can give your kids this experience.
Originally, I was going to answer the question of “how” with a joke about creating a “spoken words counted” app. To my surprise, they already exist. Since that’s not an option, I’ll go directly to my real advice – ask people and organizations who work with parents on how to speak with their kids. Organizations such as the Thirty Million Words Initiative help parents learn to how to teach language to their kids. Several organizations help teach parents how to read with their kids.
Of course, how much we speak with our kids is only one factor that influences our children’s success. But it’s one that is free, and is in our complete control.