Kirsten Asmussen is Head of What Works, Child Development at the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF).
EIF and many others have long argued for the importance of early language development to children’s later life chances. Evidence summarised in our forthcoming report on key competencies in children’s cognitive development highlights how programmes and practices can help parents talk to their children in a way that best supports their language development. We can summarise some of the key messages here.
First, it is not just about words. While language disparities have traditionally been described in terms of a ‘word gap’, evidence tells us it is not about quantity, but quality. Specifically, it is about the quality of the child-directed speech that parents use with their children on a day-to-day basis. Child-directed speech is an exaggerated form of adult speech that involves a wider range of vocal tones, a slower rate and shorter phrases. Studies suggest that child-directed speech helps children differentiate phonemes and words and understand the importance of language for communication. Words heard through normal adult speech or television provide relatively little value for children’s early language learning by comparison.
Second, it is not just about reading and rhymes. This is not to say that these activities are not important, because they are. Book sharing introduces children to words and ideas that are decontextualised from the here and now and promotes reading as a source of valuable information. Rhymes facilitate children’s phonemic awareness, which supports their early language development, as well as their decoding skills when they are first learning to read. Studies show, however, that during the early years, language is best supported through developmentally appropriate parent–child conversations in response to the child’s interests.
- During infancy, babies benefit from child-directed speech during joint attention activities involving household items and toys.
- During toddlerhood, quantity is especially crucial, particularly in terms of new vocabulary.
- During the third year, children benefit from more diverse and grammatically complex language that reflects their particular interests.
- During the fourth and fifth years, children benefit from opportunities to participate in conversations that make use of structured narratives.
Third, content counts! In this respect, parent–child conversations support children’s cognitive development in a variety of other important ways:
- Conversations about objects and living things help children to understand how the world works, which in turn supports their analogical reasoning capabilities as they grow older.
- Conversations about the thoughts, feelings and desires of others also increases their empathy and understanding of others’ perspectives.
- Parent–child ‘number talk’ has been found to support children’s early counting capabilities. Early counting skills, in turn, strongly predict children’s mathematical achievement in later primary and secondary school.
Fourth, dosage matters: the best evidence also tells us that parents need to hear these messages more than once in order to remember and act on them. Our report concludes with recommendations for how these messages can be shared through a well-coordinated early years’ offer, involving health visitors, children’s centres, childcare and preschool.