Don’t Just Talk. Listen to Your Baby Too

New campaigns to increase the number of words young children hear should focus on real conversations too

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If you’re a parent, you can’t miss the hot new thing in early education: words. Talk to your baby, and you close the education gap, goes the theory. Early language experiences, myriad studies show, help form the foundation for children’s learning and their success in school. But what if baby wants to talk back? As researchers at Cornell and elsewhere have discovered, babies also need you to respond to their words and sounds. Even in those early months of babbling, infants are trying to get your attention and soaking up those social interactions that happen when you respond to their ba-ba-bas. Before they even get a basic vocabulary, your baby needs to know that he or she is being heard, not lectured.

And yet parents may not be getting that message if they only focus on the “words” part of a series of new campaigns aimed at raising word awareness among parents and community members. NBC’s Education Nation recently put the spotlight on the Thirty Million Words initiative, a project of the University of Chicago that works with parents to encourage more “talk” and interaction with their young children. The project is named after a famous study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, authors of Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Childrenthat showed that by the age of three, children of lower socio-economic status will have heard about 30 million words fewer than their more affluent counterparts.

And then came the political headline-maker, potential presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who published an op-ed on the website for Too Small to Fail, a national initiative supported by the Clinton Foundation. The op-ed, “Closing the ‘Word Gap,’” emphasizes the importance of parents and caregivers taking time to talk with young children. “Coming to school without words is like coming to school without food or adequate health care,” Clinton wrote. “It makes it harder for kids to develop their creativity and imagination, to learn, excel, and live up to their full potential. It should spur us to action just like child hunger and child poverty.”

Over the next several years, we will see how these “bridge the word gap” campaigns unfold. This year, Providence, R.I., won a $5-million grand prize this year in the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge for Providence Talks, a project launching in 2014 that combines the strengths of high-touch programs – such as voluntary home-visiting and parent-education initiatives – with the use of a digital recording device known as the LENA to “measure vocabulary exposure for children in low-income households and help parents close the word gap.”

To build on those great efforts, we’ve got to ensure that we have a conversation about conversations. The key is to make sure the messages from all the great studies don’t get telephone-gamed into a quest for a one-way push to pump a set quantity of vocabulary words into our kids’ ears. Instead, this movement should also help parents recognize the power of conversation and interactions with their kids. Research led by Patricia Kuhl at the University of Washington has shown that even at very young ages – before age 1 – children are more likely to build language skills when they are engaged in a social interaction versus a one-way stream of words. (One of Kuhl’s studies, for example, looked at the difference between babies watching a video of a person talking and a face-to-face interaction. More learning occurred with the face-to-face scenario.)

It’s worth cheering when a world leader such as Hillary Clinton turns her attention to the importance of building children’s language skills. Let’s help spread the word about what parents can do by talking aloud about the world around them — but also then listening and responding to their children’s inquisitiveness about what they see.