Early Childhood

New Study Suggests Engaging Children in Conversation to Boost Language Skills

By Marva Hinton — March 30, 2018 2 min read
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A new study led by a team of resesarchers from MIT, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania suggests that the number of conversations parents have with their children is more important than the number of words they use.

Scientists listened to home audio recordings from 36 4- to 6-year-olds from various socioeconomic backgrounds to measure the number of “conversational turns,” or back-and-forth interactions, the children had with their parents. The children also underwent brain scans while listening to stories.

The researchers found that children who engaged in more conversation with their parents had more activity in the part of the brain responsible for language development as well as higher scores on language assessments.

These correlations were stronger than any found between the number of words heard and increased brain stimulation or the number of words heard and higher language scores.

“It seems like the driving force for brain development is the number of conversations, not the number of words,” said John Gabrieli, an MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and the study’s senior scientist.

Socioeconomic Concerns

A 1995 study found that children from low-income families hear about 30 million fewer words than their more well-to-do peers by age 3 raising concerns about how early deficiencies in language development could be overcome.

The researchers in this new study, which was published online last month in Psychological Science, found that the benefits to the brain from conversations between parents and children were present for all children regardless of socioeconomic status.

“If we could somehow support parents and families to have these sorts of conversations, that’s something that’s available for families to promote language and brain development for all children across a wide range of circumstances,” said Gabrieli.

Conversation’s Role in Development

But what is it about conversation that promotes language development?

Gabrieli says conversation combines many important aspects of development.

“It’s not only the spoken language back-and-forth,” said Gabrieli."It’s also when people talk to one another and really engage one another you’re activating the social brain, you’re activating the motivational and emotional brain. Conversations are such powerful experiences. They engage a lot of the brain and a lot of the mind of these children and help them develop.”

Although this study focused on conversations the children had at home, Gabrieli says the same concepts would apply to early-childhood education.

“The more chance there is for children to have in some context back-and-forth conversations with teachers, that ought to promote this kind of brain development as well,” said Gabrieli.

Stock photo from Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.