Why Do The Number of Words Matter?

There is a sweet scene in the classic movie Three Men and a Baby where Tom Selleck’s character, Patrick, is reading a magazine article to the baby in a very expressive voice while she seems highly interested in every word he says.

Reading to your baby or child grows their vocabulary skills

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Writer, Researcher, Mother and Grandmother

When one of the other characters asks why he would read such a crazy thing to the baby, he replies, “It doesn’t matter what I read to her, it’s the tone you use. She doesn’t understand the words anyway.” 

There is good research that backs up his message.

I remember reading the results from a 2013 study examining the disparities between the number of words children heard in the first few years of life, and things like their IQ, and how well they did in school. It appeared that helping parents know that by increasing the number of words they used with their children on a daily basis could have a huge impact on their children’s future.

According to the article by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, “Children’s vocabulary skills are linked to their economic backgrounds. By 3 years of age, there is a 30-million-word gap between children from the wealthiest and poorest families. A recent study shows that the vocabulary gap is evident in toddlers. By 18 months, children in different socio-economic groups display dramatic differences in their vocabularies. By 2 years, the disparity in vocabulary development has grown significantly (Fernald, Marchman, & Weisleder 2013).” 

The New York Times Opinionator broke down that figure even more, noting that “The disparity was staggering.

Children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour. Working-class children heard 1,200 words per hour, and children from professional families heard 2,100 words. By age 3, a poor child would have heard 30 million fewer words in his home environment than a child from a professional family. And the disparity mattered: the greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school. TV talk not only didn’t help, it was detrimental. 

And the solution is…?

It may seem that there is some kind of simple solution here to promote powerful changes in children’s futures: simply get parents to read more and talk more to their children every day.

Certainly, parents benefit from learning about this research. However I think we need to appreciate that the parents who are on welfare and all parents who may struggle to provide for their children, may themselves live in environments where there isn’t much talking among adults.

These parents may be less comfortable talking as much as the research indicates they need to be talking with their children. As a result of their many economic struggles, they may experience greater levels of depression.

That, in turn, could impact how much they speak to their children and others in general. Also there are people who are less comfortable speaking out loud. Introverts can find it more challenging to be as vocal as the research encourages parents to be.

Regardless of their economic situation or temperament, parents can become intentional about increasing the number of words their babies and young children hear every day.

In addition to reading more to children, parents can be encouraged even before children themselves have begun to speak to make a habit of speaking out loud when doing everyday things, by even saying what they are thinking. (“Okay, I need to think about what I might make for dinner tonight. We had chicken a few times already this week so I think the family is probably tired of that. Let me think about what my options are and whether I need to go to the store…” a parent muses out loud while her three-month-old baby sits nearby in a baby seat.)

Being more talkative is a skill parents can learn and knowing its powerful impact can motivate parents to put forth the effort needed.

As a side benefit, preverbal children can’t argue with you!

Invitation to reflect:

1.       Do you regularly read to your children? Is this something you can increase to make sure your children are hearing several thousand words a day?

2.      If you know you are more introverted, can you see the value in stepping out of your comfort zone a bit to make sure your children, especially if they are young, get their full dose of words every day?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network