Quality over Quantity: Why It’s Important to Talk WITH Babies – Not TO Them

Danny and Mara chatting
Category: Bookbug

It’s no secret that children need to hear language in order to learn it. We need to hear a variety of words, used in different contexts and situations, many times in order to really understand them and know how to use them.  

Although the role of hearing language is recognised, what’s even more important is participation in language 

A popular research study, published in 1995 by Hart and Risley, found that children from deprived backgrounds went to school having heard 30 million fewer words than their middle class peers. This had an overall impact on children’s learning and vocabulary skills, and those who had heard fewer words had less-developed language skills. It's important not to simply interpret this as a need to read the dictionary, or expose children to language through TV or radio: although the role of hearing language is recognised, what’s even more important is participation in language.  

More and more evidence is showing that children’s developing language skills definitely favour quality interactions over quantity of words. And although speaking to children is important, we need to change our thinking about how we speak with children in order to have the biggest impact on their developing language. Articles such as this from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explain the positive impact that the back-and-forth conversation has on child language development.  

When we treat children as conversational partners, they’re naturally more engaged and have a richer opportunity to practice and perfect their use of language. Conversations give adults a chance to model language and help children develop and extend their ideas. It’s a great way to build relationships and understand how the child views and experiences the world.  

Even the youngest of babies can have a conversation with you – look out for non-verbal communication and signs

Even the youngest of babies can have a conversation with you – look out for non-verbal communication and signs that they’re engaged and ready to chat. Many will coo, gurgle or babble back, but also watch out for eye contact and body language. Babies are clever communicators and having someone speak with them is going to help them develop the skills they need to learn to speak.  

When conversing with both babies and children, make sure you pause and give them plenty of time to answer you back. Children take longer to process the language, understand it, and think about what they want to say in response. Don’t be afraid to leave a long pause, a bit of space, and wait for the child to respond.

Although lots of exposure to language is important, what is more important is the quality – conversations about different things, talking about what you’re doing and even just describing what you see. If we talk with children, instead of to them, then no doubt we’re laying excellent language, communication and literacy foundations.