Parent talk can make kids school smart

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When Malcolm X College tested kindergartners and 1st-graders at six Chicago elementary schools it was working with, it found that half were unable to comprehend at least some prepositions. Words denoting sequence, such as before, now, later, yesterday and today, also were unfamiliar to most of the 1,500 youngsters.

Low language skills persist into the upper grades and interfere with reading comprehension, according to Joe Layng, Direct Instruction project manager at Malcolm X College. “They call out the words, but they don’t understand what they’re reading.”

Similarly, a 1988 study by the Chicago Sun-Times indicated that only half the youngsters entering Chicago kindergartens could speak in complete, simple sentences—compared to 90 percent in the upper-middle-income suburb of Wilmette. (The study queried kindergarten teachers about the skills of their incoming pupils.)

Why such a difference? Both advocates of Direct Instruction and advocates of progressive teaching techniques agree that it’s not because the middle-income kids are more able to learn. Rather, it’s because middle-income parents talk to their kids more.

In one observational study, researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley of the University of Kansas found that parents who were professionals spent 50 percent more time talking with their 1- and 2-year-olds than did parents who were on welfare. By the time the children turned 3, the vocabulary of the children in professional families far outstripped the vocabulary of the children in welfare families—1,100 words to 600 words. And I.Q. scores, a traditional measure of intelligence, reflected this difference.

Hart and Risley also observed working-class families. The “talking time” varied but again was linked to I.Q. scores at age 3.

The kind of talk also affected I.Q. scores, with children benefiting more from conversations in full sentences. Parenting style had an impact, too. Higher I.Q. scores were registered by children whose parents praised them, responded to their words and actions during conversations and asked rather than ordered them to improve their behavior.

Hart and Risley forecast that by age 4, the average child from a professional family would hear from his parents roughly 30 million more words, 600,000 more encouragements and 100,000 fewer discouragements than would the average child on welfare.

Barbara Bowman, president of Erikson Institute for the Advanced Study of Child Development, cautions that teachers should not draw conclusions about the quality of parenting from a child’s language skills.

“Different communities of people talk to their children different amounts,” she says.

As an example, Bowman points to a longterm study that examined how children in three different communities in the Piedmont Carolinas learned language. One community was working-class African-American, another working-class Christian Fundamentalist and the third middle-class and multiracial. The study, conducted by Shirley Brice Heath of Stanford University, found significant differences in the ways parents in each community interacted with their children.

For instance, in the working-class African-American community, small children were not considered “conversational partners.” In fact, speaking directly to a preverbal child (asking questions or naming objects and body parts in the manner of middle-class parents) would have been considered bizarre behavior. Rather, children were expected to absorb language from the flow of adult conversation around them.

Questioning varied

The types of questions parents asked their children also differed. Where the working-class African-American children might be asked for information unknown to an adult (What do you want?), they never would be questioned on facts the adult already knew (Where is your nose?). In the other two communities, questions that tested a child’s factual knowledge were common.

Heath also found that unlike the middle-class students, the Fundamentalist working-class children were confused when teachers asked hypothetical questions (What would happen if…) that asked them to deviate from what they understood to be fact.

Bowman says that when children don’t respond to questions in school, it may be that the style of the question puzzles them. For example, she says, “The child knows that the teacher knows. He knows the teacher knows he knows. What’s the question?”

The language children learned, Heath found, prepared them well for life within their own communities. However, the middle-class children were better prepared for school. She attributed this to two things: the vocabulary and general information the parents provided and the fact that parent-child interactions—e.g., questioning—more closely mirrored the structure of classroom learning.