Quality of Words, Not Quantity, Is Crucial to Language Skills

A New York Times story describes research from I-LABS and others showing how it will take more than greater exposure to language to narrow the educational gap faced by children from low-income families.

The White House held a summit Oct. 16 to talk about how to close the "word gap," a disparity in which young children from low-income families hear fewer words compared to children from affluent families. This puts poor children at an educational disadvantage before they even begin school.

There's growing attention to how it's not just about the quantity of words children hear, but the style of communication matters too.

A New York Times story describes some of the science behind this, including I-LABS research. Here's a snip:

But this year’s studies are the first time researchers have compared the impact of word quantity with quality of communication. The findings, said Dr. Patricia K. Kuhl, a director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington and an author of the April study, suggest that advocates and educators should reconsider rallying cries like “close the word gap,” that may oversimplify the challenges facing poor children. “I worry about these messages acting as though what parents ought to focus on is a word count, as though they need a Fitbit for words,” she said, referring to the wearable devices that tally steps.

More about I-LABS research and the "word gap."

Kuhl's study that came out in April, published in the journal Developmental Science, used audio recorders and a speech analysis computer program (LENA, "language environment analysis") to capture the auditory environment of 26 about 1 year of age.

Lead author of the study was Nairán Ramírez-Esparza, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Connecticut.

The researchers characterized 4,075 30-second intervals of recorded speech. Besides the number of words the babies were hearing, the Kuhl and Ramírez-Esparza also wanted to get a better sense of the social context. Were babies alone with a caregiver or in a group? Were adults speaking in regular voices or in the exaggerated tones known as "parentese"?

The study found that social context was important. When the researchers later followed up with the families, 2-year olds in families who spoke the most parentese in a one-on-one social context knew more words compared with the 2-year olds in families who used the least babytalk in one-on-one situations.

“It’s not just talk, talk, talk at the child,” Kuhl said in a UW Today news release (with parentese audio clip) about the research. “It’s more important to work toward interaction and engagement around language. You want to engage the infant and get the baby to babble back. The more you get that serve and volley going, the more language advances.”

Read more about the "close the gap" initiative on The White House Blog.