The Word Gap: 4 Easy Ways to Expand Your Child’s Communication Skills

Introduction to the Word Gap

What is the word gap?  It is common sense that humans are apt to learn a language more comprehensively when they have no choice but to speak it.  This is why language immersion program are both the most successful and sought after learning programs around.  While immersion is normally used to describe the summer-long tips to foreign countries for advanced college students, it also applies to babies and establishing their native tongue.  

If you think about it, babies and young children have no choice but to speak the language that is spoken within their homes.  They cannot physically remove themselves from the home, nor can they block out the conversations that are being held to and around them.  Their language experience is a complete immersion from birth.  

However, there is a difference among children as to the quality and quantity of the immersion experience during their first years.  

A 1995 study entitled The Early Catastrophe established what was to commonly be known as the “word gap”.  The researchers observed lower, middle, and upper class families over the course of several years, documenting the communication that was delivered among family members.  Their findings were stark.  The conversational difference between a child in a professional class family versus a welfare class family was 32 million word “experiences”.  

 

Income Group Average Words per Hour Total Words by Age 4 Affirmative to Prohibitive Ratio
Professional 2,153 45 million 6 to 1
Working Class 1,252 26 million 2 to 1
Welfare 616 13 million 1 to 2

The performance of these children on standardized tests when they were 9 and 10 years old had a high positive correlation to their total word experiences when they were younger.  

This difference is staggering.  There have been many parents, teachers, organizations, and politicians that have advocated for an increased numbers of words to be heard by and communicated to young children.  Unfortunately, the sheer volume of words is not the only factor that affects future performance.  Other factors to consider when talking to your children include an early introduction to language, the quality of words spoken, number of conversation turns, and use of encouraging phrases.  

1. Early Introduction to Language

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

There is no better time to talk with your children than today.  Like, right now.  As you’re reading this, read it aloud to your children.  Seriously.  If you are waiting for Head Start to teach your children, the are already left behind.  

As mentioned previously, your child is immersed in language from the day they are born, with no choice but to listen to the world that you them him/her in.  You will never again have the opportunity to speak to your children with the same abandon as when they are newborns and infants.  However, some people may feel weird talking to a baby as if he was a fully grown adult.  Weird looks may abound.  Comments may be muttered under breaths.  

Forget about it.  Whatever people are thinking has nothing whatsoever to do with you.  It has everything to do with them.  Maybe they are jealous that they never thought to speak in a  conversant manner with their children.  Maybe they are unaware of the benefits.  Or maybe they are actually praising you but don’t want to seem intrusive into the little world you have created with your baby.  Regardless, do what you do, and talk with your tiny, speechless (but not noiseless), illiterate dependent.  

This article from the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill has some great tips for talking with your young children.  My favorites are 2, 6, and 7.

Be a Commentator

This is especially important when your child cannot communicate in words yet.  There is a chasm between what the child is trying to say and what you can understand.  However, you can shrink that by telling him what you are doing, speeding up the cognition of his world.  Let’s go through some examples.  

When changing his diaper, talk through the process.  

“Okay, let’s get you cleaned up with a baby wipe.  This is going to be a little cold.  I’m guessing that you would have preferred us to buy the wipe warmer rather than the Tommy Tippee bottle set, huh?”

“Think you could hold your new diaper while I get you dried up?  I bet being nice and dry feels much better, doesn’t it?”

“I’m going to need that fresh diaper now, please.  You must think the waistband is really tasty before naptime, but it really belongs on the lower half of your body.”

A few years ago, Amelia worked weekends at the hospital, so I would go shopping at Costco with my infant daughter every Saturday.  I brought along a water bottle, at least two containers of cut up fruit, Veggie Straws, and her Strawberry Shortcake doll.  And we had great conversations!

“Holy smokes, five pounds of Cinnamon Toast Crunch is 30% off?!?  I can’t pass that up!”

“Do you think we should strawberries or blueberries today?  Both?  Great idea!  And kiwi?  Plus bananas?  Sure thing!  How about a big bag of kale?  Yeah, I would pass on that, too.”

“Oh look, a 32 pound chocolate bunny in all the brightest colors right at the entrance to attract the attention of kids.  I’m sure you would love that, but I think we should pass today.”  

Read Interactively

Reading a book has been a core aspect of language learning at a young age for eternity.  However, there are various types of reading.  You could read a book with the child sitting on her bed, trying to sit still and be patient while you read to her.  Or, you could have your daughter sit beside you or on your lap while you read with her.  The latter provides so many more benefits, from the hormones released from physical touch to introducing conversational turns, discussed later in this article.  

First, the closeness of each other allows for the production of many attachment hormones, primarily oxytocin.  Oxytocin has been promoted as the “cuddle drug”, chiefly researched between couples for its ability to increase the feeling of bonding and closeness.  Between a parent and a child, oxytocin also increases the feeling of bonding in the safety and security category.  

Humans are hardwired to look out for danger.  Any sight, sound, or smell that could lead to bodily harm is almost always instantly at the forefront of our minds.  When a child is flooded with oxytocin the presence of a parent, it leads to a more trusting environment with reduced stressors, allowing for increased brain function focused on the words of the story.  

Second, it is beneficial to engage your children when reading a story, especially when the book it 90% pictures.  Ask questions that start with “How many…”, “What color is…”, “What shape is….”  “Where is….”  This will have children start to use the same words that are being used in the story and increase their retention abilities.  

Read It Again, and Again, and Again

Books are great, but sometimes they take a second reading.  Or third.  Or fourth.  I have some paperbacks in my book collection that I have read so many times, I don’t even read them anymore.  I merely flip through the pages, catching a few phrases here and there to remind me of the entire scene on that particular page.  This does not lessen the impact of the words, it’s just that I have read them so many times that I have almost memorized them.  

Reading your child’s favorite book (or books) over and over and over again is similar.  They love the ideas that are found in the book, and could probably recite the story just from hearing it so many times, even if they can’t read.  This does not erode the impact of reading with them, it merely reinforces the ideas that are present in that book.  

So when Junior asks for his all-time, 100%, favorite book in the world for the 50th time, give it your best shot to read it like the first 49.  

2. Enhance the Quality of Your Words

Definition

An unfortunate consequence of the initial study is that the 32 million gap became the sole focus of so many educational institutions, and the other factors were forgotten.  The Early Catastrophe was adapted into a book, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.  This book brought the academic study to the everyday masses, and a movement was borne to close the word gap.  However, a more nuanced reading of the study and book show that quality of words is almost as important as quantity of words.    

Suggesting that you need to use “quality” words does not mean that you need to sound like a Victorian era British author, nor does it demand the use of five dollar words in a ten cent conversation.  It does suggest that you use language that is clear, correct, and concise; conveying your thoughts in a complete fashion.  In other words; say what you mean and mean what you say, with precise language.  

“We can’t just have people saying 30 million times ‘stop it!’ It’s got to be much more,”

  • Dana Suskind, professor of surgery and pediatrics, University of Chicago

Stop the Baby Talk to Your Baby

You can hear this from parents whenever you visit any playground in the country.  The parents constantly talk to their kids as if their creatures from another planet rather than their own flesh and blood.  The high pitched tones.  The nonsensical words.  You can almost see parents devolve in front of your eyes.  

“Here comes your baa-baa!  Awwww, does baby not want his baa-baa?”

“Is your tushy all mushy-wushy?”

“Let’s go to the vanny-wanny for a teensie-meensie, itty-bitty ridey-widey.”

Some might argue that talking to a child using this lack of vocabulary is better than not talking at all, it could also be argued that the parents are teaching the incorrect use of language, which might be worse.  

The urge to speak in these tones is strong.  Babies are cute partly because they try so hard to emulate our adult language but can’t quite seem to make it work.  We smile at their comical takes on words and want to a) laugh at their irreverent mixups and b) encourage their attempts to speak.  However, lowering your language to their abilities only sends the message that their mistakes are correct, reducing their desire to try more difficult vocal and linguistic combinations.  Instead, give your child a shining example of how to speak by using the correct words and phrases of what they are attempting.  

“Okay Timmy, time for your bottle.  I understand that it is close to your nap time and you are cranky, but you will not get good sleep until you have had your lunchtime bottle.”

“Oooh-boy, it smells like you need your diaper changed.  Let’s get all the supplies out of the diaper bag and get you into a fresh diaper.”

“It’s time to leave so we can pick up your mom.  It’s only a five minute ride, so you shouldn’t be in your car seat long.”

Stop the Baby Talk to Other Adults

Your child picks up a phenomenal amount of information by observation.  Even if you are using “baby talk” to your child, be sure to snap out of it when talking to other adults, especially your significant other, with whom you presumably spend the majority of your time.  

Listening to adults converse in a fluid fashion, using the actual vocabulary of adults, will have a large impact on your child.  Seeing an actual conversation play out displays the nuances of language, including body language, intonation, conversational respect, and context of certain words.  While they may not be able to fully explain these in a dictionary format, they pick up on these aspects intuitively.  

Ensuring that you speak like an adult to other adults also conveys the message to those other adults that you have not lost your identity.  Being a parent is super tough.  I get it.  I am one.  But you cannot let it become all consuming.  

Parenting has almost become its own religion, with the highest honors bestowed upon those parents who sacrifice the most so their children get what the parents never had.  Unfortunately, there is a large negative effect on the relationships of those parents to other adults, in that they lose relationship and communication skills with adults, leaving them with a void once the child is in school.  

Encourage Questions

In the day-to-day use of adult language with your kids, they are inevitably going to encounter words they do not know the definition to.  This often happens with words meant to convey ideas rather than concrete items.  Encourage your kids to ask the initial question, and follow through with a patient and complete answer.  This is easier said than done.  

For example, if a child asks you what a bike, pencil, or drinking glass it, you can easily show exactly what the object is and show how it performs its function.  When the child is older and starts asking about emotions, ideas, or other abstractions, exhibit some patience and attempt to fully explain the concept.  This will accomplish three things.  

First, you will directly teach your child a new idea.  Second, it is an opportunity to show your children that you love them by taking time away from your day to focus on their question.  Third, you exhibit patience and understanding, which demonstrates a positive trait for your child to emulate.  

3. Increase the Number of Conversation Turns

Also called “serve and return” conversational flow, the number of conversation turns is critical in developing a child’s communication skills.  Having a child initiate a conversation without feedback is detrimental on two fronts.  First, there is no reply from the recipient, thus no reactive stimulus from which to learn.  Second, the emotional disconnect from a lack of communication can have long lasting negative effects.  

Stimulus, But No Response

Imagine the following: you are strolling around the city on a random walk and come across a man talking to a stone statue.  He initiates the conversation by asking the statue how he is doing and commenting on the weather.  When the statue says nothing, the man shows a little irritation but nevertheless continues on his one-sided conversation.  Several minutes on, the man shows more frustration due to the statue’s silence.  

Soon, he starts gesticulating and raising his voice, accusing the statue of pointedly ignoring him.  A few more minutes go by, and the frustration turns to sadness, followed by a mournful pleading.  Why, why won’t the statue converse with him?  What has he done wrong?  At the last, the man becomes dejected and walks away, muttering that he will never talk to that statue again.  

Répondez s’il vous plaît (RSVP, Respond If You Please)

If the adult man sounds like a nutcase, he probably is.  But this is the same conversation that is being had by children to their parents across the country and around the world.  While the topic may not be a deconstruction of the historical fallacies of imperial countries invading sovereign territories in Southeast Asia, the pattern is the same.  

Children want, and more importantly need, interaction in their communication.  Even infants are capable of serve and return “conversations”.  A kick of the leg, swat with an arm, visual contact, and giggles are all forms of communication that are in search of a response.  

Here are a couple of videos showing what serve and return communication looks like, even at a very young age.  

For older children, you might think that the back and forth of a conversation may be easily replaced by a screen, a book, or just observation.  Unfortunately, each of those has drawbacks.  

TVs or other screens do not offer any of the benefits of one-on-one conversation.  Listening to one side of a phone call may offer some benefit as a game, having the child deduce the other person’s comments, but it does not improve conversational skills.  Lastly, while reading a book is good for increasing language skills on so many other levels, it falls short when learning the idiosyncrasies of communication between two people.  

In short, engage in conversation with your children, even if their only thought is, “I like pizza!”  Follow that up with, “That’s great.  What is your favorite type?”

4. Use Encouraging Phrases

The final factor to incorporate when speaking with your children is the use of encouraging phrases.  This might actually be a misnomer, as the phrases being described are not directly encouraging the child in a particular task.  Rather, they are affirmative phrases used to direct children to positive actions and critical thinking, rather than prohibitive phrases used to stop a negative action without pondering the consequences.  

Referring back to the three income groups from the original 1995 study, the ratio of affirmative to prohibitive phrases is the key indicator for a child’s success.  

 

Income Group Affirmative to Prohibitive Ratio
Professional 6 to 1
Working Class 2 to 1
Welfare 1 to 2

Stop Using “Stop It!”

While there are several examples of prohibitive phrases, “Stop it!” is the most widely used.  It is monosyllabic.  It is perfunctory.  It is direct.  

Most importantly to the person using that phrase, it gets results.  

Unfortunately, it also has unintended consequences.  Consider the use of “Stop it!”  You want the child to stop whatever action he/she is doing, but there is no explanation.  Is the action itself unsafe?  Is it the environment of the otherwise “safe” action?  Is the timing off, perhaps a loud noise while a baby sibling is attempting to sleep.  

None of these contextual concepts is explored with this short phrase, so the child assumes incorrectly that the otherwise appropriate and accepted action that was taking place is now taboo.  Additionally, children lose out on any learning that might have taken place during that activity.  

Let’s use an example.  Jimmy is drawing on the floor.  However, he just found some brand new markers that only Mom and Dad use in their office.  He has never been told that they are off limits, and they look almost exactly like the markers he has in his own coloring set.  What Jimmy doesn’t know is that these are colored Sharpies that will bleed through the paper and stain the hardwood floor.  

When Jimmy’s dad walks through the doorway to the living room, he sees Jimmy using the permanent markers and immediately yells “Stop that!  Put those markers back where you found them and go to your room!”  No further explanation is given at the time.  Jimmy heads to his room thinking that the act of coloring was the bad thing he was doing.  Now, the next time he wants to draw, he will have a small voice in his head starting to doubt if he should even draw at all, much less with markers.  

Jimmy’s dad was probably been thinking about the Sharpies bleeding through the paper and staining the hardwood flooring.  Instead of a son enjoying an activity, he saw dollars down the drain.  Many times, a response of “Stop it!” comes from a place of scarcity and fear rather than abundance and love.  

Start Asking Questions

Instead of issuing a command that is direct and immediate, there is a better alternative using encouraging phrases.  Upon seeing Jimmy coloring on the hardwood floors with permanent markers, his dad could have asked Jimmy to kindly stop coloring because he wanted to show him something.  Then, lifting up the paper, the dad would be able to explain the request to stop coloring, focusing on the choice of markers rather than the action of coloring.  

If Jimmy had never been told not to use the Sharpies, this would be a learning moment to let him know about the different types of markers.  Of course, that learning moment would be after the learning moment regarding the cleanup of the floors.  

Jimmy’s dad would then be able to follow up with a question of, “Next time you find some new markers, what do you think you should do before using them?”  The correct answer would be to double check with either Mom or Dad.  

The use of questions is a powerful teaching tool.  The open-ended nature of a question makes the child think about the situation and formulate his own answers.  Additionally, in a question and answer situation, you as the parent are the person initiating the conversation, “serving” as it were.  This allows for the child to think about his reaction and “return” an answer.  

Conclusion

The implications of this and follow-up studies are formidable.  The quote below sums up the impact that can be seen by the children in the various income groups.  

“Extrapolating the relative differences in children’s hourly experience allows us to estimate children’s cumulative experience in the first four years of life and so glimpse the size of the problem facing intervention.  Whatever the inaccuracy of our estimates, it is not by an order of magnitude such that 60,000 words becomes 6,000 or 600,000.  Even if our estimates of children’s experience are too high by half, the differences between children by age 4 in amounts of cumulative experience are so great that even the best of intervention programs could only hope to keep the children in families on welfare from falling still further behind the children in the working-class families.”

Other Resources

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has a list of activities to encourage speech development from birth through 6 years old.  

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders has a great website detailing the milestones of early childhood speech development.  While not every child is the same, these are broad based signs to look for any impediments to average growth in the areas of speech and other communication

The Hanen Centre, a Canadian non-profit focusing on knowledge and training for parents and teachers, has a great list of common myths about childhood speech development.   

 

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