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Study shows speaking to children helps foster language development

Published: Friday, Oct. 25 2013 5:25 p.m. MDT

Possible learning barriers from being raised in a low-income home can be overcome by an age-old skill: conversation.

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A recent Stanford University study shows that children from lower socioeconomic status may be as much as six months behind their peers in language proficiency by age 2 — but according to Anne Fernald, it's not as troublesome as it may seem.

Talking directly to children is the antidote.

Fernald, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford, conducted a study published last spring that explored the differences between language development among polar ends of the socioeconomic spectrum.

By comparing language development in 18-month-olds from both high- and low-income families, she determined that future academic success is developing before the child ever steps foot into the classroom.

"The differences emerge very early, and emerge in measures that we know have predictive validity. In other words, we know these are characteristics of language proficiency that predict later language skill and with that, school success," Fernald said.

In fact, language begins from birth, as does the influence parents have on their child's language comprehension, .

The language-processing gap

Fernald first tested twenty 18-month-old children from an affluent part of the San Francisco Bay Area by showing them two simple pictures such as a dog and a baby. Through exclusively vocal commands, such as "where is the dog?" or "where is the baby?" researchers, using video recording, were able to measure the child's eye movement in response to the prompt.

Researches recorded how fast children moved their eyes towards the correct picture. Six months later, she ran follow-up tests to track the children's development.

Fernald additionally ran the same tests on twenty eight 18-month-old children from low-income homes near the Bay Area, as well as the follow-up tests six months later.

The results, Fernald said, were a little disheartening.

Children from lower socioeconomic conditions were six months behind their peers from a higher SES background in terms of language processing proficiency, even though they had both increased in speed.

"A 15-month-old child will wait until after the word is over and then shift. An 18-month-old child is already shifting by the end of the word 'baby.' At 24 months, all the child needs is 'where's the ba-' if they are looking at the dog, they know they are in the wrong place so they start to shift even earlier," Fernald said of her middle-class participants.

She called this efficiency in processing spoken words and explained that it flourished during the second and third year of a child's development.

"It develops much more quickly in more advantaged children," she said.

However, the results from a second study Fernald conducted among 29 19-month-old children from lower-socioeconomic homes in the Bay Area Latino community provide reassurance.

The power of parental speech

Fernald recorded the amount of parent-to-child interaction for 10 hours by attaching a voice recorder to the child's T-shirt.

Extra dialogue, such as the television in the background, or an adult talking on a cellphone was omitted from the total words the child heard. Fernald wanted to measure the effect of words spoken directly to the child.

Fernald was looking specifically for something she calls "child-directed speech" and she thinks it is the most telling clue in how children learn to speak. Two extremes from the results helped strenthen her hypothesis.

One child she observed heard 12,000 words in 10 hours from her caregiver.

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