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Opinion: do parents need to talk the talk?    

As parents, we all worry about our children’s development, and whether we’re doing the right things to help them achieve. Children from less advantaged backgrounds on average achieve less than their same-aged peers. They also trail behind in spoken language development from very early in life.

I have started to ask why there are these social differences in children’s language development.

I entered parenthood with just a high school education. As my kids grew up, I was aware that their language and literacy skills were well developed. When I began studying in this area I realised that seems to go against what the research says. Apparently my kids were beating the odds. I wondered why, of all the things I felt like I got wrong about parenthood, I seemed to have gotten something right! I noticed that we were a fairly talkative family, and I wondered if that had helped.

It’s concerning that children might be arriving at school with unnecessary disadvantages, and we know that spoken language development is an important basis for early success in school. So, I decided to find out what things in a baby’s daily life contribute to early language development. This way the research can potentially help level the playing field for kids in those important early years and give them a good start at school.

In my research study, I have been working with 50 families in Western Sydney. I am following their infants over time (from ages 7 to 19 months) to try to understand how much family talkativeness affects the size of children’s vocabularies.  So far, I have found large differences between individual families in how much they talk to their babies. Some babies are hearing thousands more words in a day than others, and are involved in hundreds more little ’conversations’ with caregivers, even before the babies have started to talk. I’m following the babies for another few months and I’m really interested to see the way their vocabularies develop, for example, finding out how much the differences in families’ communication behaviours lead to differences in their children’s verbal skills.

The findings will help families to know how to best support their children’s spoken language development, to ultimately help level the playing field for children in education.

Photo: Anne Dwyer, The MARCS Institute at UWS

Photo: Anne Dwyer, MARCS Institute, UWS

Anne Dwyer is a PhD researcher at Western Sydney University.

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