Study: Quality and Not Quantity of Parents’ Words Teaches Vocabulary

"What do you read, my lord?" Words, words, words. Image: Flickr/HaraldGroven
“What do you read, my lord?” Words, words, words. Image: Flickr/HaraldGroven

Sure, we’re flipping the focus of American education from knowing dates and memorizing geography to training skills of critical and creative thinking. But one “building block” skill remains critically important and that’s vocabulary. The number of words a child knows when he or she enters kindergarten is an astoundingly good predictor of how well they’ll do in school and even how they will much later do in the workplace. Simply, knowing vocabulary lets kids understand, express and maybe even comprehend complex ideas with precision.

So how do you make sure your child has this vocabulary? As a parent, you talk to you child, right? A study from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that it’s quality and not quantity of speech that counts. If your speech matches your actions and the surrounding context, kids learn your words — if not, it’s just talk. And this study shows that empty talk is cheap.

They used a cool experiment. First, they captured video of 50 parents talking with their 14- to 18-month old kids. Then they chopped video down to 40-second clips and somewhere in the clip they bleeped a word. Could 218 other adults guess the bleeped word? (I would not have been an ideal test subject, influenced as I am by Samuel L Jackson’s children’s book reading.) It turned out that when adult viewers could guess the taped parents’ words, the kids in the video had larger vocabularies.

Record scratch: huh? The researchers write that the difference was the quality of taped parents’ “socio-visual input.” For some of the videos, only 5 percent of viewers guessed the correct word. For others, 38 percent of viewers knew the word the researchers had bleeped (again, does this sound like the basis of a great drinking game?). When actions were as loud as words, viewers knew what parents were saying and apparently so did kids: the kids of parents with strong socio-visual input had higher vocabularies even three years later.

And it wasn’t just that parents whose actions made their meaning known were also the parents who happened to talk more. There was huge variation in parents’ words-per-minute, ranging from 6.3 to 97 wpm during the 90 minute taping. And sure, the more words-per-minute, the higher kids’ vocabularies three years later. But the researchers show this is because more words offer more chances that some will be delivered with quality. There was no relation between parents who talked more and parents who talked well, and even when the researchers pulled out the influence of quantity, quality of speech continued to matter. It’s not just how much you speak to your child, it’s how you do it — how you frame your speech with context and actions.

Here’s another cool part: previous studies have shown differences in the quantity of speech across socioeconomics — less advantaged children tend to hear fewer words from their parents. But in these tapes, the quality of speech didn’t vary by income. Poorer parents delivered the same quality, and this helped narrow the vocabulary gap three years later.

With your own child, think about whether you’re a babbling brook to a passive child in the background or whether you’re delivering words accompanied by situations and actions that make them understood. It’s this context and not necessarily the amount of your words that can teach kids the vocabulary that is so important to their success in school and in ______.

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