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Parent Talk Proves Critical for Early Learning and Vocabulary Development

Too Small to Fail
By Too Small to Fail

A good vocabulary is vitally important to brain development because it serves as a framework for all later learning. Children who hear more words during the day spoken directly to them by their parents develop better vocabularies and are better prepared for reading comprehension and critical thinking in school. Without words, children cannot adequately express themselves and are hard-pressed to catch up later in life.

A study by Professors Betty Hart and Todd Risley in the mid-1990s found that children in low-income homes hear approximately 600 words per hour, while children in professional homes hear approximately 2,100 words per hour. This difference of 1,500 words an hour adds up to millions of words by the time a child reaches preschool age, and results in a poor child having about half the words in her vocabulary of a child in a high-income family by the time the child is 3 years-old, and this early gap translates into later gaps in academic achievement.

More recently, a study reported in The New York Times found that a vocabulary gap may exist as early as 18 months of age, making the period from birth to early toddlerhood even more critical for building language skills later in life.

In a statement released yesterday, Next Generation’s Ann O’Leary says: “Professor [Anne] Fernald’s research shows that by the time children are two years old, there is already a gap in language proficiency of six months between higher- and lower-income children. But income does not have to predict life long learning outcomes… Parents have the power to help their children succeed in learning and in life through small acts that can have a big impact.”

Parents and caregivers can make a huge difference in their children’s early learning, since vocabulary development happens during the months and years that children spend most of their time in parent or early care. Some concrete things that parents and caregivers can do with babies and young toddlers to improve vocabulary include reading to children for 15 minutes a day; narrating their day while shopping at the supermarket or taking walks; and counting out loud.


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Sandra Gutierrez, national director of Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors and Advisory Council member of Too Small to Fail, talks about the power of parents [in Spanish].

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