How Our Words Shape Our Children’s Language and Literacy Skills

I recently posed this question on my Facebook pageIf you could give ONE recommendation/ piece of advice to another parent about speech/language development, what would it be? (This can be from SLP to a parent or parent to a parent)

The answers were AWESOME! I loved how we had a good mix of parent-to-parent and SLP-to-parent suggestions. The conversation over there inspired me to share a little research on how our words shape our children’s speech, language and literacy skills and share the most important basic thing you can do to help your child’s language development from the day he is born. 

how our words shape

Quantity Matters

Numerous studies have indicated that a strong language base is key to a child’s later academic success. In their groundbreaking longitudinal study, researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley (1995) followed 42 children from varying socioeconomic backgrounds to study the effects of adult to child talking on a child’s later speech, language, and literacy development. The researchers recorded one full hour of parent-child interactions every month in the home beginning in infancy until their third birthday, and followed up when the children were between 9 and 10. They found the quantity of words spoken to a child in the first three years of life were strongly associated with a child’s language skills, vocabulary size and IQ later in life

New research coming out of Stanford confirms Hart & Risley’s findings.  Anne Fernald’s research is finding that language discrepancies can be evident as early as 18 months between groups of children exposed to more vs. less language. Her research also indicates it’s the words spoken directly to a child that are responsible for vocabulary growth, not words the child passively hears like while watching television or by being around adults conversing to one another.

Quantity vs. Quality

Hart and Risley had another interesting finding: Those children exposed to more positive feedback and statements in relation to negative feedback had the highest language skills at age three and beyond.

Expanding on the Hart and Risley research, researcher Meredith Rowe (2012) studied the vocabulary development and parent-child interaction of 50 children at varying stages of development from 18 to 42 months of age. She videotaped 90 minutes of child-parent interactions and looked at the relationship between quantity and quality of words on vocabulary development. Her results indicated:

  • Toddlers aged 12-24 month olds benefit most from the QUANTITY of words heard
  • Toddlers aged 24-36 months benefit the most from the QUALITY of words (a variety of more sophisticated words)
  • Preschool children aged 36-48 months benefit the most from conversation and narratives regarding past and future events as well as explanations
  • The size of a child’s vocabulary in kindergarten predicts his ability to learn to read

Conversations Matter

Rowe wasn’t the only one to discover the importance of conversation. In another study conducted by the National Institutes for Children’s Health and Human Development, researchers followed 1200 children in several cities in the US from birth and found that children who were engaged more in conversation by their caregivers or teachers knew more colors, letters and shapes at age three than children who were engaged less in conversation in those first few years of life.

What to Talk About?

Does the topic of conversation matter? Absolutely.  It’s all about what your child is interested in. This sums it up nicely, from one of my favorite books (Affiliate link->) Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn–and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less:

“When parents build upon the child’s interest and use it as the basis for conversations, they stimulate language growth. A large body of data tells us that this pays off in a big way. In fact, research shows that even children as young as 18 months have higher vocabularies than their peers if their parents talk with them about objects and actions that the children are interested in. These are the same children who have larger vocabularies at the beginning of school and higher reading and mathematical levels in kindergarten and first grade.” -pg 89

Another Variable to Language Learning

Unfortunately, another finding from these studies mentioned above was that children of lower socio economic status (SES) tended to hear significantly less words than those in higher SES homes. In fact, Hart and Risley found children of low SES heard 30 million less words by age 3 than children in high SES. As mentioned, the the newest research by Stanford confirms this, showing that this gap can be evident as early as 18 months. Amazingly, brain studies can actually see the difference in the brains of these two groups of children, with the children exposed to more language having larger language areas of the brain than those exposed to significantly less language.  Further evidence that the quantity and quality of our interactions with our infants and toddlers is so very important!

There is hope: With proper interventions, there is evidence that parent education and training can help overcome the 30 million word gap.

What I Want You to Take Away From All This

from the day he is born

When Talking Is Not Enough

I recently posted about the fact that you can do EVERYTHING “right” and yet, still have a child with speech and language delays. I am living proof of this, as I am a speech pathologist, an expert in communication, and yet I have a son with a mild speech delay. Though talking to your child is by FAR the BEST thing you can do for your child from birth, there are many other variables at hand and I’ll be talking more about this is an upcoming post. Sometimes, talking is NOT enough. But, it IS so very important! 



Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Hirsh-Pasek, K. & Golinkoff, R. (2003). Einstein never used flashcards: How our children really learn- and why they need to play more and memorize less. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Publishers.

Rowe, M. (2012). A Longitudinal Investigation of the Role of Quantity and Quality of Child-Directed Speech in Vocabulary Development. Child Development: 83(5), 1762-1774.


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  1. Tara Anspach says

    Thank you so much for your informational posts. I send a link to your site to teachers in my building often to share your great information. Keep up the good work!

  2. Joyce Massey says


    You are doing a great job with your blog. Amazing article again…

    Thanks for helping me and all out there who needs guidance.

  3. says

    Katie, what a fabulous post! I can’t wait to share the link with my readers tomorrow. So many great points. I kept saying, “yes, yes, yes” as I was reading. Thanks for providing the statistics but making it easy to understand for parents.

    • says

      Jodie, I am so happy to hear this was easy to understand! That was my goal. I know as a parent, this is so important. Thanks for sharing and thanks for your insight!