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Speech study: Quality pivotal in teaching tots

Mother and daughter reading on sofa at home

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Speech study: Quality
pivotal in teaching tots

It’s no secret that children learn to speak when they are spoken to. The more the better, according to past research.

But a new study led by University of Pennsylvania scientists suggests that the quality of the parents’ speech, not the quantity, is what really makes a difference in building a young vocabulary.

What’s more, although past research found that children of wealthier and more-educated parents were more likely to hear lots of words, the new study found no connection between parents’ quality of speech and their socio-economic status.

Anyone, in other words, should be able to give a kid a leg up.

“Kids really learn the meanings of words in one or two exposures,” said Penn’s Lila R. Gleitman, one of the authors and a professor emerita of psychology and linguistics. “It’s a matter of talking to your child, instead of talking at your child.”

The study, a collaboration with University of Chicago researchers, was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Authors played multiple videos of 50 parents speaking to their toddler children and measured how easy it was for untrained observers to guess what the parents were saying with the sound turned off.

The parents whose words were easier to guess also seemed to have an impact on the toddlers they were addressing. On average, the higher the quality of speech as measured by the observers, the better the child’s vocabulary three years later.

More research is underway on just what are the characteristics of quality speech.


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