Photo: Micaela Bedell for Strategies for Children

Researchers know that talking to babies helps their vocabularies grow. The more words infants hear the better. But studies show that in addition to more words, babies benefit from hearing more complex words. And as children grow, parents can help by having more “abstract” conversations.

Meredith Rowe, a Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) professor, explains her findings on language development in an interview posted on HGSE’s “Usable Knowledge” website.

“We’ve known for a while that the quantity of input matters. I think the shift to a focus on quality rather than quantity was a natural next step in the field,” Rowe explains, adding:

“It is much easier to send a message about quantity, but if we know that quality trumps quantity, statistically, then perhaps we can really try and change the message to be more about having high-quality conversations with children rather than just ‘talking a lot.’” 

What is a high-quality conversation? It depends on a child’s age.

“…I think one of the biggest challenges for the field is to pinpoint the specific features of input that are most beneficial for children’s language learning at different points in early childhood. Some of my work has focused on the importance of non-verbal input, specifically pointing a lot and at a lot of different things while you talk with your young children (ages 9 through 18 months),” Rowe says in the Usable Knowledge Interview.

Rowe has also done research that found toddlers and preschoolers benefit from hearing “rare or sophisticated vocabulary words and using talk that is abstract or beyond the here and now is very helpful at these ages.”

In a 2015 research article, Rowe points to the use of “decontextualized language.” Instead of just talking about “the here-and-now,” decontextualized language is often used to describe abstract concepts such as events in the past or future. This kind of language is also used in narratives, pretend play, or when parents give explanations.

Rowe gives an example in which italics mark the rare and sophisticated words:

“So a parent might have a conversation with a three-year-old about their recent trip to the children’s museum, and they might reminisce about how much fun they had putting balls through a chute and trying to line them up at the right angle so that it worked properly. This could lead to a discussion about gravity or many other related topics.”

What did Rowe’s research reveal about parents?

“Primary caregiver education is positively related to both quantity and quality measures. On average, more highly educated parents use more words and more diverse vocabulary at each child age than less educated parents.

“But there were some areas where we did not see average social class differences in input. For example, with that beneficial narrative talk about the trip to the museum, the more educated parents did not use it more, on average, than the less educated parents.

“I think this is important. Different parents communicate with their children in different ways. Our goal is to inform parents and caregivers of the types of input that are most beneficial for young children’s language development. If parents are already communicating in these helpful ways, then it will be easier for them to continue to do so.”

A 2012 article by Rowe provides more background information about a study of language use among 50 parent-child pairs.

Summing up, Rowe offered three simple take home points that can be shared (in person or on social media) with parents, early educators, and policymakers who are interested in effective, research-based practices:

• with infants, point and label a variety of objects

• with toddlers, ask challenging questions and use diverse and sophisticated vocabulary

• with toddlers and preschool children, talk about past or future events

When it comes to language development, strive for quantity and quality.