By Talaris Institute
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Mother and baby

Talking with your child during everyday events like nappy changes and baths is a great way to help your child learn the sounds and words of language. And the more talk like this, the better.

For example ...

It’s time for the baby’s bath. It’s been a busy day, and you have a lot on your mind. Your child loves playing in the warm water, but tonight it feels like just one more thing to do.

Is this a good time for a language lesson, even if you don’t feel like it? You bet. Here’s how you do it.

It’s time to wash your hair now. Should we use the cup to pour the water? Lean your head back a little so the soap doesn’t get in your eyes. Let’s dip the washcloth in the water so we can clean your little nose. Do you have dirt under your fingernails? Let’s see if we can get it out ...

More is better

When it comes to teaching your child language, it’s how much you talk that counts the most. It might sound simple, but the best way to build children’s vocabularies during the critical first three years of life is to talk with them – a lot.

Talking to children throughout the day helps in two ways:

  • When parents talk more often, they use a wider range of words.
  • Parents who talk a lot with their kids usually use longer and more complex sentences. This helps children learn what words mean, how grammar works, and how to talk about things in the past or the future.

When parents have ‘conversations’ with their young children, they create a foundation for good communication down the road.

One study looked at the everyday talk between parents and children in 42 families. The results clearly showed that children’s vocabularies grew faster and they scored higher on IQ tests when their parents talked to them often.

Talking gap

All parents talk to their children. But the study found big differences in the types of conversations some families have. Researchers spent one hour a month with each family tape-recording the conversations between parents and children. The results were surprising: 

  • One group of parents spent an average of 40 minutes each hour interacting with their children. Another group spent about 15 minutes per hour. 
  • Some parents spoke more than 2000 words an hour on average to their kids. This is compared with others who spoke around 600. 
  • One set of families responded to their children 250 times an hour on average. Another responded only 50 times.
  • After three years, children from the most talkative families are exposed to nearly 30 million words. Those from the least talkative might have heard only 10 million.

Quantity is quality

In each family, all the children learned enough language to get through everyday experiences. And for the most part, the conversations were about similar things. Families talked about people, places, actions, feelings, objects, experiences and past and future events. They answered their children’s questions and responded to their actions. And they guided them with encouragements such as ‘That’s great, honey,’ and restrictions such as ‘Don’t touch that’.

If the families seemed to talk about the same things, why were some children speaking and understanding more words at age three?

It turns out that the more parents talked to their children, the better the conversations got in terms of variety and richness.

Take bath time as an example. The more you talk to your child, the more likely you are to use different and more creative words to name and describe things. Sentences will become more complex and longer. You’ll ask more questions. And there is a greater chance you will talk about things in the past and in the future. Conversations like these help build a child’s vocabulary.

‘Look at those little dirty hands. They got so dirty playing outside today! Do you remember digging in the dirt? We found a little worm that wiggled in your hand. I’ll bet next time we’ll find more worms and bugs. Oops – it looks like there’s some dirt in your hair too! Let’s wash your hair now ...’

The study also found that talkative parents were much more likely to guide their children with positive feedback such as ‘good’ or ‘that’s right’. When parents were talking less, they were more likely to use negative feedback such as ‘stop that’ or ‘don’t’. The families that talked the most used an encouraging tone 70-80% of the time, while those that talked the least were more likely to scold or use a discouraging tone.

 Talking tips

So what’s the key to talking more with your children? The researchers noticed some good strategies parents used when interacting with their children.

  • Just talk. Use everyday events like folding laundry, changing nappies or doing the dishes. Talk enough to keep the child cooperative and engaged. This works well with younger children learning their first words.
  • Listen . When children talk, even if it’s silly or hard to understand, use it as a chance to add information, encourage more talking, or to elaborate on what they said. ‘You’re talking about the little bird? Look at his pointy beak. What colour is his beak? He can fly high in the air.’
  • Be nice . Kids need our guidance to learn what’s OK to do. When they do something they shouldn’t, suggest a better or right way to do it. Avoid negative criticism. For example, a parent could say, ‘We write on paper, not on the walls’, instead of ‘Don’t do that!’ 
  • Give choices . Whether trying to get a child to do something like pick up toys or teaching them to use a spoon or fork, choices are important. Give choices that are real. ‘Do you want to eat your peas or your rice first? Do you want the blue or the green cup?’ 
  • Talk some more . It’s a big new world for kids, so help them by pointing out interesting things. ‘Look at the yellow bird in the sky! It reminds me of the story grandma told us about ...’. Talking about things is a great way to remember past adventures and prepare children for new experiences.

Helpful parenting tips

  • Talk. Engage your child all day long, asking questions, explaining things, and adding new ideas. Try to use full sentences and lots of different words. 
  • Use positive, affirming language to guide your child’s behaviour. ‘I like it when you hang up your coat!’ Use negative language sparingly.
  • Read lots of stories. Read favourite books over and over. Try sharing books with friends, or bringing home new stories from the library. 
  • Talk to your child even if your child is not a talker. Some kids are naturally quiet. Talking to them will help them learn the language just the same. 
  • In a large family, pay special attention to younger ones to make sure they are getting the verbal attention they need. 
  • Grandma, grandpa, uncles, aunts, neighbours, siblings and babysitters – encourage all of those who love your children to talk with them as much as possible.
Children start the wonderful road of learning language from the day they are born. Parents who talk to their children throughout the day are giving them a gift. The language they learn will help them enjoy and understand the world around them, and it will prepare them for the challenges of life ahead.