New research shows how parents can boost their child's language skills

Sunday, September 9, 2018
New research shows how parents can boost their child's language skills
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The quality of interaction between parents and their child could be the key to boosting children's vocabulary.

Parents are often looking for ways to lay a strong foundation for school and make sure their babies and toddlers are off to a good start. New research suggests it's not just the interaction between parent and child, but the quality of that interaction that plays a crucial role. It may also play an important role in vocabulary development in a child's first years.

When it comes to helping children learn words, parents know there's nothing like a few minutes with a favorite book.

"Every night we read to him and we make sure we read to him several times a day," mom Kelli Gleiner said.

But is simply reading out loud to a child enough to foster word development in his or her first few years? Research suggests there might be more to it. Catherine Ayoub, who is a consulting developmental psychologist at Harvard Medical School, along with her colleagues, studied 146 parents and children who were enrolled in Early Head Start.

Researchers went into homes and videotaped their interactions at 12 months, 24 months and 36 months and counted the words babies said.

"We really found that the most important parenting contribution to the child's development of language was parental sensitivity," explained Ayoub.

Are parents picking up on their child's cues? The research suggests being attentive to a child's needs in a warm, loving way is associated with a higher number of words that he or she speaks, especially early on.

As children become toddlers, parents' teaching activities become more important. Experts tell parents: Make sure you let your child leads your interactions. If they show interest in another activity, explore it. Describe and narrate the world around you. Name the objects you see, what they are and where they go.

"There's a direct link between the stimulating behavior and vocabulary. Also, there's a direct link between the parental sensitivity and vocabulary," Ayoub said.

Together, these work best. The researchers say it's especially important for parents to teach children things that are appropriate for his or her developmental level, when their child is around 36 months. Sensitivity is especially important around the first year of life.