Tag Archives: language development

Teaching Language is Not Just About Saying More Words

The Oto Monitor

There is a new product called Oto – “the First Monitor for Your Baby’s Healthy Brain Development”. (Learn about it at https://www.oyalabs.com/)

They’re  electronic monitors you place around your home. The website says they use AI and Natural Language Processing to tally how many words a child hears, how many engaged, back-and-forth exchanges you have with your child, and the quality of your language including the ratio of positive to negative words.

If this were an academic study that I’d been asked to participate in with my child, I would absolutely say yes, because it would be fascinating to participate and see the research results!

But I’m a little troubled by the marketing of the device. It says “These indicators are proven to be critical for their IQ and emotional development.” The implication is that this device is essential for helping you ensure your child reaches their full potential. They also say “The number of words you speak to your child daily is a core metric – the more language, the better child’s outcomes.”

I worry that the parents who purchase this device would then become anxious, feel guilty when they weren’t talking, and become overly focused on talking and talking and talking to their child. This onslaught of words would be exhausting for me to produce as a parent and exhausting for a child to hear and may totally miss the point of how children most effectively learn language.

Bronson and Merryman (source) say “For years, the advice has been that the way to kick-start a child’s language learning was to simply expose kids to massive amounts of language. However, as we explain in our book NurtureShock, the newest science has concluded that the central role of the parent is not to push massive amounts of language into the child’s ears. Rather, the central role of the parent is to notice what’s coming from the child and respond accordingly.”

Let’s look more at what we know about language learning.

Can there be too little language in a child’s world?


There are definitely “linguistically poor” households, and this can absolutely lead to significant “vocabulary gaps.” In general, children from households with lower income and lower family education know fewer words. (source of chart above) Some examples from research:

  • A child in a low income home will hear an average of 616 words in an hour, a child in an average professional home will hear 2153. (source)
  • In one year, children from poor families hear 250,000 utterances at home, while children from wealthy families hear 4,000,000.  (source)
  • By age four, middle and upper class children hear 15 million more words than in working-class families, and 30 million more than in families on welfare. (source)
  • By second grade, a middle income child will know ~6020 words. A low income child will know ~4168. (source)
  • By 18 months, toddlers from disadvantaged families are already several months behind more advantaged children in language proficiency. (source)
  • 5-year-old children of lower SES score two years behind on language tests. (source)
  • When 18 month olds were shown two objects, then one was named aloud, higher SES toddlers could identify the right object in 750 milliseconds, lower SES toddlers were 200 milliseconds slower to respond. That slower mental processing speed means they have a harder time keeping up with teacher’s words. (source)

Not only are there fewer words spoken in a lower income household, the discussions that do happen are likely to be focused on daily life, such as what to eat, work schedule, and other practical topics. They are less likely to have wide-ranging discussions around the dinner table on a variety of topics. The parents may also work multiple jobs, which means less opportunity for reading bedtime stories. This may lead to the same words being used a lot, and fewer novel words that broaden the child’s vocabulary.

Also, in single parent households or homes where one partner is away at work, it may be more likely that the television is on in the background much of the time, which leads to less engagement and conversation between parent and child. (Source)

A child who understands fewer words and has slower processing speed  when they begin school will not just start behind – they’ll stay behind. As the teacher talks and some kids understand all the words and all the concepts, and some kids can’t even understand the words used, they get lost before reaching the concepts. (source for graph below)

capture 2

So yes, if there are too few words being used in a child’s environment, that child can be word poor. And yes, that will create academic challenges. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean the answer is to just talk a lot more…

What Is Responsive Language?

Imagine two scenes.

  • A toddler is sitting and poking at her cheerios and poking at her spoon so it rattles on the table. The parent, wanting to be sure the child is receiving mental stimulation, talks about their day: “As soon as you’re done with your breakfast, we’re going to put your new red shoes on and we’re going to go for a walk, and maybe we’ll see some butterflies again. Remember, the last time we went to the bakery to buy bread and we saw two blue butterflies?” The child keeps poking at her food as the parent talks. “I’m going to get a book now – we can read it together.”
  • As the toddler pokes, she looks up at the parent for their reaction. The parent sits with the child and says “you’re poking your cheerios with your finger. You pushed them all into a big pile on that side of your dish.” As the parent speaks, they point at the big pile. The child pushes a few more cheerios into the pile. “Now there are five more cheerios in the pile.” Then the child pats the spoon. “You’re using your hand to pat the spoon. The spoon makes a fun noise, doesn’t it?” The parent pats the spoon and says “It’s going rattle, rattle.” The toddler rattles the spoon some more, parent says “rattle, rattle” again. Then the child holds up the spoon to show it to the parent. “You picked up the spoon – can you use it to pick up some cheerios?”

In the first example, the parent’s voice is mostly background noise for the child whose attention is focused on the cereal and the spoon. There is also the chance of “criss-cross labeling” where if every time the child touches the spoon, the parent happens to talk about butterflies, the child could get confused about whether the thing they’re touching is called butterfly.

In the second example, the parent closely observed the child’s actions and where the child’s attention was focused, then talked about that. This gives the child the words for what they are experiencing in the moment with all their senses. This builds a much stronger connection between the words and their meaning. When you talk about a spoon later, the child can remember this moment and remember what the spoon felt like in their hand and the noise it made on the table.

To some parents, it may seem like talking about cheerios and a spoon is boring. They may feel like they need to jazz up the child’s learning with talking about bigger ideas. But slowing down to your toddler’s pace and tuning in to what they are in the process of exploring offers a meaningful connection for their learning.

There are three characteristics of responsive language: it’s prompt (happens within seconds of the child’s behavior, it’s contingent (related to the behavior) and it’s appropriate (parent responds in a positive and meaningful way). (source)

So, if a child showed a parent a ball, the parent would quickly respond, “Oh, you have a  ball in your hand!” If the child said “ba”, the parent would say “Ball. Yes, it’s a green ball.”

Does responsive language increase learning?

  • One study showed that when parents were more responsive, their children would reach all these milestones sooner: imitating parent’s words, first words, speaking 50 words, combining words to make a “sentence” and talking about the past.
  • A parenting style that includes parental warmth, high expectations and clear routines is associated not just with language ability but also better memory and higher achievement. When parents use a lot of negative strategies, their children have more limited language skills. (Source)
  • Children who hear more child-directed speech – not just overheard speech – process language faster and learn words more quickly. (source)

Here is a summary of other research:

In the second year, when infants begin to understand and produce words and simple phrases, responsiveness predicts the sizes of infants’ vocabularies… the diversity of infants’ communications… and the timing of language milestones… Infants of high-responsive mothers (90th percentile) … achieved language milestones such as first words, vocabulary spurt, and combinatorial speech, 4 to 6 months earlier than infants of low-responsive mothers… Toddlers of low-responsive fathers were 5 times more likely to display cognitive delays than were toddlers of high-responsive fathers… fathers’ responsiveness to their 2- and 3-year-olds predicted toddlers’ cognitive and language abilities within and across time… (source – includes citations for all studies)

How can you use responsive language?

Dr. Dana Suskind, author of Thirty Million Words recommends three steps for parents and caregivers to expand a child’s vocabulary:

  1. Tune In by paying attention to what your child is focused on
  2. Talk More with your child using lots of descriptive words
  3. Take Turns with your child by engaging in his or her conversation. (source)

Additional recommendations:

  • The Hanen Centre says that step 1 is OWL: “Observe Wait Listen. The parent needs to give the child the opportunity to take that first turn, so that the parent has something to respond to.”  (Learn more about OWL – Observe, Wait, Listen.)
  • Their next step is follow the child’s lead: imitate what the child says, interpret (what the child would say if they had the words), comment (giving the child words to describe what they are doing) or join in child-directed play. (Learn more.)
  • Use parentese – that sing song higher voice parents use to talk to babies.
  • Use motion – point to things as you talk about them, touch them, shake them. All this helps the child focus their attention while you label the objects.
  • Talk about what they want to talk about (what they are doing or are paying attention to in the moment). Don’t change topics quickly.
  • Don’t interrupt their attempts to communicate with you. Wait for them to get their thought out. Look at their face to show you are listening.
  • Children also benefit from hearing lots of different people speak – at different pitches, tempos, and with different accents and facial expressions. So take them out in the world, so they have an opportunity to interact with diverse people.
  • Reading to your child is also a huge influence on language learning. Learn about how to read to a child and lots of other literacy topics.

Don’t feel like you have to talk all the time

For brain development in general, children need three things: novelty (new experiences), repetition (the chance to explore something over and over to learn about it in depth from all angles), and down time (restful periods without lots of input when they can process all that they’ve seen and heard). This is true of language too.

Children need new words, they need to hear the same ones over and over in different contexts, and they also need quiet time for their inner thoughts to unfold. It is fine to have long periods of silence at home too. Even if you choose to have an Oto monitor listening in.

Learn more about responsive language:

Story-Telling – Narrating Wordless Movies

If you’re looking for a great way to build language and literacy skills, as well as observation and interpretation skills, try this. Find an animated short movie with no words. Play it through once, just watching. When your child says “Again, again” as all children do, play it again. This time, you narrate it – just describe what you’re seeing and what’s happening in the movie. Then, when they say “Again!” say “OK, but this time you have to tell me what it’s about, and what you see.”

You’ll notice that at times, your child uses the same words you did to describe the scene. Sometimes she will mix in her own descriptions and interpretations of things you commented on. Sometimes something completely different catches his eye, and he tells the story of some element you barely noticed the first time.

It’s a fascinating insight into what your child notices and what they ignore, and good practice for future reading, and for farther-in-the-future book reports or movie reviews.

I’ve linked to a Glen Keane video above, which is where we discovered this technique. There are also some fabulous Pixar shorts (think about For the Birds, with all the birds on a wire…. or Geri’s Game with the old man playing chess with himself, or the Blue Umbella or the opening sequence of Up where it traces the history of Ellie and Karl’s marriage). Or think of Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 from Disney. Or there’s tons of YouTube videos that your friends post on Facebook every day showing cute animals doing entertaining things. Show those to you child and ask him to explain what he sees.

Language development in Toddlers

Developmental Milestones

Individual children vary, based on gender, temperament, and caregivers’ language use, but here are some typical average milestones for language development:

  • At one year old, your child might understand 50 words and say a few.
  • Around 20 – 24 months, he may understand 150 – 200 words, and speak 50 – 150. Somewhere in the period, he’ll have a huge growth spurt in language knowledge, called ‘fast mapping’ where he may learn up to 8 words a day!
  • By 24 months, she speaks 250 words. She can answer some questions, ask questions, name many familiar objects in the house, and can ask for what she wants.
  • By 30 months, he understands 500 words. Speaks 250-500, saying them more clearly so others can understand. Uses 2 word sentences. Can begin to talk about how he feels.
  • By 3 years, she speaks in full sentences. Begins to figure out grammatical rules.
  • By kindergarten, children may know 10,000 words.

Help them learn

How to talk: When speaking directly to a baby or very young toddler we use “parentese”, also known as “baby talk”. We establish eye contact, slow our speech down, simplify language, and vary our tone a lot, in a bright, happy, sing-songy voice. This makes language very interesting to the child, engaging, and emotionally satisfying.

As the child gets older, we still use aspects of this, but we shift gradually over time to a more mature way of speaking, with full sentences and more complex vocabulary.

What to talk about:

  • Describe events and actions – what the child is doing and how they are doing it. This teaches verbs and adverbs: “you are running fast”, “you’re touching that kitty very gently.”
  • Describe objects in the room and things they’re interacting with. This teaches nouns and adjectives: “that’s a big ball”, “that’s a red car”. Ask “can you point to the picture of a goat?”
  • Use lots of details, but keep sentences short and simple. Repetition reinforces new words.
  • Ask questions, then pause and wait for child to respond verbally or non-verbally. “Do you want more peas?” Repeat (or verbalize) their response: “Yes, I see you reaching for more peas.”

Research has shown that children learn language best when the parents tune into what the child is interested in the moment and talk about that. Or as Bronson and Merryman say “the central role of the parent is not to push massive amounts of language into the child’s ears. Rather, the central role of the parent is to notice what’s coming from the child and respond accordingly.”

Some parents just throw language at kids: “Look, over there is a window. Outside, I see blue sky, and trees, and birds. Next to the window, there’s a bookshelf. There are red books and green books…” The more effective parent notices that their child is reaching for a crumb on the floor and talks about that. When a dog barks and the child looks up, the parent says “Did you hear the dog bark? I did too.” Timing is essential – make sure you’re talking about the thing they are currently focusing on, not on what held their attention 30 seconds ago.

Listening and responding

As our children begin to communicate, they need us to show that we are listening and responding.

  • Let your child tell you stories, and respond as they do
  • Pay attention as your child speaks
  • Repeat your child’s words. Add to what she has said. If she says “doll”, you say “you have a doll.” If she points and says “horse”, you say “horse, yes, that’s a white horse.”
  • DON’T correct your child. This can cause the child to feel self-conscious and worried about using language. Instead, use repetition of their words, where you use the correct form of the word… If your child says “we runned to the playground” you can say “Yes, we ran very fast.” Or if she says “I love p’sketti”, you say “I love spaghetti too!”

Who talks to your child?

Research has shown that if only one person says a new word to a child, even if they say it many times, the child might not learn the word. If multiple people say the new word to the child, even just once each, the child learns the new word. So, try to expose your child to multiple speakers.

Vary your words, but not too much

When you say “You have a toy. Can you give me the toy? Thank you for giving it to me.” you have just illustrated verbs (have, give, and giving), pronouns (you and me) and that you can use the indefinite article “it” to refer to a toy. That’s a lot of language learning, but it works because it’s a natural, easy follow-able flow of thoughts. Variety in speech is great, but be careful not to go too far.

If you say “Are you thirsty? Does Bobby want milk? Or can I get my little guy a glass of water?” those sentences may have nothing in common with each other from a toddler’s perspective. Try “Do you want a drink? I can get you a drink of milk or water. Milk? OK, here is your milk to drink.”

Games and activities to build language skills

  • Say nursery rhymes together, make up new verses. As your child gets old enough, have him make up rhymes of his own.
  • Sing songs. This is a great way to build vocabulary through repetition.
  • Play games with physical responses: “Can you touch your elbow?” “Put your hand on your tummy.” “The easter egg is hiding under the table – can you find it?”
  • Ask questions that have “right answers” they can memorize and repeat for a sense of mastery. The classic game is “What does a dog say? What does a cat say?”
  • Play telephone – pretend to talk to each other on the phone, taking turns in conversation.
  • Pretend that a toy or stuffed animal is talking to your child. Encourage him to respond.
  • Ask your child to tell you stories about her day, or re-tell the storyline of her favorite book.
  • Emotion coaching includes labeling emotions. As a child gains words to describe his feelings, the feelings can seem more manageable.

Curious about raising bilingual children? Check out yesterday’s post.


Read about Responsive Language with your child to boost their language learning.

Language for Learning: a video for child care providers, showing how simple it is to encourage language learning www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DPhIQh91Mw&list=WLsMLXfBPSxoG3J_FkZGqnxVV2P34cr_S_

Talking Toddlers: 7 tips to help develop language skills (or read Nurture Shock by the same authors, Bronson and Merryman) http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/Parenting/tips-toddlers-develop-language-skills/

Getting Ready to Read is a short booklet that says about helping your child become a confident reader, but it’s really bigger than that – full of ideas to support language development from birth to 5. www.zerotothree.org/child-development/early-language-literacy/cradlingliteracy_ready2read_8-14-09.pdf