KIPS Blog: Parenting Assessment in Practice & Research

Closing the Word Gap is Not Enough. It Takes Quality Interactions

Posted by Marilee Comfort on Fri, Oct 24, 2014 @ 03:27 PM

Parent-child interaction-wordsThe “30 Million Word Gap” - This phrase keeps popping up in community service programs and in the news media.  Across the US, communities are launching public awareness campaigns and innovative programs supported by public and private funding to “close the word gap” by encouraging families to talk, sing and read every day with their young children.  Learn more about new projects in Illinois, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and California.

All of these efforts are based on evidence from the classic longitudinal study, discussed in a previous blog, conducted by Hart and Risley from the University of Kansas on language acquisition and socioeconomic status (SES).  By counting every word spoken to the child in the 1-hour monthly samples and projecting over a 14-hour waking day, they estimated that, by age 3, children in the lowest SES group heard 30 million fewer words than the children in the highest SES group.  Though all the children learned to speak adequately by age 3, the study found that the rate of language acquisition was faster in the highest SES homes.  [For details, see the results published in their book, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley (1995) Paul Brookes Publishing, Baltimore]. 

Assessment Showed Parent-Child Interaction Matters Too

An equally powerful, but much less often discussed finding of Hart and Risely was that, beyond the number of words spoken by parents to children, the quality of the parent-child interaction mattered too.  They coded the audio to capture five elements of verbal interaction, combined into a parenting index: language diversity, feedback tone, symbolic emphasis, guidance style and responsiveness.  Those of you familiar with the parenting assessment, the Keys to Interactive Parenting Scale (KIPS) will note the overlap with the 12 KIPS items.

At 3 years of age, the parenting index was a strong predictor of children’s’ IQ, rate of vocabulary growth and vocabulary use.  At 9-10 years of age, parenting quality continued as a strong predictor of receptive vocabulary (r = 0.78) and language skills (r = 0.78), and showed double the predictive strength of SES alone.  These remarkable predictive values showed that parents’ interactions with their young children made a great difference in children’s language skill development.

Bridging the word gap was also the topic of conversation at an October 2014 White House Conference. Language development researchers and policy makers noted their concerns about overly simple messages to parents about “filling the word gap”.  For example, Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, Psychology Professor at Temple University in Philadelphia highlighted the value of the quality of parent-child interaction, not only quantity of words between parents and children.  Like the classic 1995 study, her research suggests that, instead of one-sided talk and vocabulary building, parents need to engage their children in two-way conversations that go back and forth.  This builds the foundation for lifelong language skills.  When presenting her findings, Hirsh-Pasek commented:

It’s not just about shoving words in. .  . It’s about having these fluid conversations around shared rituals and objects, like pretending to have morning coffee together or using the banana as a phone. That is the stuff from which language is made. (Hirsh-Pasek, 2014)

Using data from 60 families involved in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, a long-term study of 1,300 children birth to age 15, Hirsh-Pasek and her colleagues found that quality verbal interactions during parent-child play predicted children’s language skills at age 3 better than anything else - including the quantity of words a child heard.  Quality of parent-child communications with 2 year olds accounted for 27% of the variance in expressive language skills when children were 3 years old, even when parental education was taken into account.

New Language Resource from the American Academy of Pediatrics

Building on this classic Hart and Risley study, just last week at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) National Conference, Hillary Clinton announced the release of a free toolkit for pediatricians and parents, Books Build Connections, to support early literacy of children from infancy to 4 years old.  Why Hillary?  Because the Clinton Foundation, through an initiative called Too Small to Fail, collaborated with the AAP to produce a toolkit designed to promote early literacy by providing doctors and families with the information, tools and books they need to close the word gap with infants, toddlers and preschoolers.  It includes tip sheets on choosing and sharing books with children, parent handouts and other early literacy resources in mobile-friendly formats.  With roll-out of the toolkit they hope to spark families to build environments of interactive conversations between parents and their children as part of their daily routines, and thereby close the word gap.  Although books and early literacy are touted in the toolkit, I was delighted to see the focus on parent-child interaction interwoven with books and conversations.  In one of the downloadable resources for families, The Secret to a Smarter Baby, there were two pages of simple, no-cost parent-child activities for families to infuse interactive language into their daily routines.

Here’s the main message:

What, then, is the secret to a smarter baby?  The answer is, above all else, the loving interactions that you (and your baby’s other caregivers) will share with your baby over the upcoming days, weeks, and months. Perhaps the most important message is that you don’t need to put too much pressure on yourself when considering what to do with your baby. The best types of activities are simple. (The Secret to A Smarter Baby, 2014)

The evidence from mounting studies over the past 20 years tells us that the quality of parent-child interactions during the early years lays the foundation for children’s later language skills.  It’s not how many words children hear, but how they and their parents use them during interactions.  In our verbal society, understanding and expressing ourselves through words is critical to relationships and achievement within our family, school, and community environments.  To “close the word gap”, parents must engage young children in meaningful interactive language experiences each day.  Many parents do this by using words to support their children’s emotions, discuss family stories, consider their choices, problem solve together or explore new books, toys or songs.  When parents ask what they can do to build their children’s language skills, check on what they are doing now with an observational parenting assessment, such as KIPS.  Then use the assessment information to put your heads together and figure out what’s working well and what you’d like to work on together. 


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Tags: parent-child interaction, word gap, early literacy, language skills