More Than Words: How Parents Can Boost Their Children's Language Skills
A new study finds that parents who give 'high quality' non-verbal clues to their toddlers will help them grow their vocabularies for years to come
When Pete Densmore wants to get a message across to his two young children, he just doesn’t talk—he moves, doing everything from pointing to giving a thumbs up for job well done.
“Nonverbal clues are daily routine here,” said the Bartlett, Illinois dad and author of DADspirations: The 1st 100 Days of Fatherhood. His kids —a three-year-old son and 19-month-old daughter—respond more quickly and calmly when he uses hand gestures and facial expressions instead of just words, he said.
A new study finds that Densmore and other animated parents are on the right track when it comes to helping children build their vocabulary. Researchers at the University of Chicago have found that toddlers who were given more “high quality” non-verbal clues while their parents talked to them had larger vocabularies by the time they entered kindergarten.
Researchers reached this conclusion by videotaping interactions between 50 primary caregivers and their children, all aged 14 months to 18 months. To determine which caregivers provided high quality clues to their children, researchers showed 40-second clips of the interactions to a group of more than 200 adults with the sound muted. After watching the silent clips, the adults were asked to determine what words the caregivers were using when beeps sounded on the tapes.
When the adults were able to easily guess a word—for instance, the word “book” when a caregiver was pointing to a book—that was considered a high quality clue.
Researchers got their results after following up with the children three years later and measuring their vocabularies.
Though socioeconomic differences have long been known to be a major factor in the size of children’s vocabularies—more educated, well-off parents typically talk more to their children—in this particular study, socioeconomic status didn’t seem to impact the results.
“Parents of lower social economic status were just as likely to provide high-quality experiences for their children as were parents of higher status,” said University of Chicago psychology professor Susan Goldin-Meadow, the co-author of a paper published on the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Parents who spoke to BabyZone said they weren’t surprised by the study’s findings on the benefits of non-verbal clues.
Celine Spino, the mom of a 4-year-old and 14-month-old in Ridgewood, N.J., said she points out objects and pictures—animals are a favorite—to her toddler all the time and did the same when her son was younger. Repetition, she said, is key.
“They’re sponges,” she said. “If you do something—whatever it is that you’re doing—repeatedly, they’re going to pick it up and they’ll have the associations… they’re going to get it.”
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