Parent talk is probably the most valuable resource in our world. No matter the language, the culture, the nuances of vocabulary, or the socioeconomic status, language is the element that helps develop the brain to its optimum potential. – Dana Suskind
I have many important roles, but the ones I feel have been most significant in my life are mom, teacher and grandma. Often I read something that changes my thinking and I feel makes me better in my roles. So it happened when I read the book Thirty Million Words by Doctor Dana Suskind. It was more like being hit by lightening! Because it has changed how I think, I just had to share what I learned with other gung ho grandmas and parents!
Suskind is a cochlear implant surgeon. The implant is a remarkable technology that can help even profoundly deaf children hear. But Suskind noticed that her young patients went on to develop language skills at very different rates. Some reached or surpassed grade level. Some didn’t. Why? She concluded it came down to parent-talk.
Suskind explains, “The 30 million word gap comes from a very famous study that was done probably about 30 years ago by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, where they followed a group of children between 0 and 3 years old from all socioeconomic backgrounds. And basically what they found, by the end of age 3, children from low-socioeconomic backgrounds will have heard 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers. And this number itself was correlated not just with differences in vocabulary but also differences in IQ and test scores in the third grade.”
That is an amazingly amount of extra words!!
Suskind believes that the difference between those children who do well in school and those who do not is caused by a gap of thirty million words heard spoken by parents and caregivers from the time a child is born until the age of three, the period for optimum brain development. The most important time for this growth is from ages 1-3, though, of course, a child’s whole childhood is important for learning. As a society we have tended to focus on the learning that happens from playschool and throughout the school years… but we have really missed the boat if we do not focus on those first 3 years of life.
Suskind says, “In the first three years of life, you’ll have no more rapid and robust brain growth than during that time. It’s when 80 to 85 percent of the physical brain develops. We’re all born with 100 billion neurons, but those neurons are meaningless without those connections. And what results in those connections? It’s really about parent talk and interaction.
The brain, unlike any other organ, is pretty unformed when you’re born, and it’s completely dependent on this environmental input: parent talk. So that’s why, in your first three years of life, you’re basically building the foundation for all your thinking and learning through parent talk and interaction.”
The first part of Thirty Million Words explains all the research that she uses to support her concepts, and then it shares 3 important ways that parents can use talk to make their babies smarter … Tune In, Talk More, Taking Turns. I am going to summarize what the book says about the first practice, Tune In, for you in this post so you can understand it without spending hours reading the book, like I did (though I also highly recommend reading the book). I will post about the other two ideas in the near future.
Tune In is really tuning into what your child’s interested in, following his or her lead, or getting him or her interested in what you’re doing. And it doesn’t matter that the child is too young to speak … hearing all this parent-talk is what helps develop their brains, so all these concepts should happen from birth.
Parents, grandparents and caregivers make a conscious effort to notice what a baby/child is focused on at the moment, and then they talk WITH the child about it. They focus as the child is focused (even if the child is too young to understand the words being spoken and even if the focus is continually being changed).
Parents, grandparents and caregivers follow and respond to a child’s lead.
Suskind gives the example of you wanting to read a book to the child, but the child wants to build a block tower. I will often just pull my grandchild away from the tower and make them listen to the book (isn’t reading a book a wonderful thing??). Suskind says to first ask the child, “How would you like to read a book?” and then tune into their answer. To Tune In you will want to build the tower with them and talk about it for a while and THEN read a book, when they are ready to move on.
“Parents learn to be aware of what their child is doing and then become part of it, enhancing the relationship, helping to improve the skills being used in play, and through the ensuing verbal interaction, helping develop their child’s brain.”
Suskind explains that children stay focused only when they find an activity interesting. If there is no interest, then even the words of a really great story, will have little effect on brain development.
Tune In is enhanced by being on the same physical level as your grandchild, so get them on your lap, lay down on the floor, or pick them up so they can see the world from grandma’s view point.
This Tune In is obviously lessened by digital distractions, like tv, phones, computers, tablets, and IPads. These things can all be VERY attention absorbing for parent or grandparent, which makes the child NOT their primary focus.
I have been to many parks where children are playing and the parents are sitting on a bench looking at their phones instead of interacting, playing and talking to their child. My daughter has a wise policy of neither parent looking at their phones when their one year old daughter is around. Smart parents!
One thing I was happy to learn from reading this book was the importance of “baby talk” … the goofy, babyish talk I always start using when I am around any baby. Some parents proudly say, “I never talk baby talk to my babies, I only speak adult speech.” That certainly isn’t me … I often sound like an idiot.
Suskins says that baby talk, with its melodic pitch, positive tone, simplified vocabulary and sing-song rhythm, is very engaging for a baby and helps better develop their brains.
Suskind also suggests using lots of repetition in your interactions with young children … in what you say to them, by reading the same stories over and over again, and by singing the same songs with them.
Responsiveness of the mother, grandparent, or caregiver is key in the first 5 years … you cannot spoil a child with too much attention! (That is no problem for this gung ho grandma!).
My next 2 posts will cover the concepts from the book Thirty Million Words of Talk More and Take Turns … so tune in later!