A few weeks ago I wrote a post entitled, “The Power of Words” in which I described studies showing that the gap in academic achievement between economically disadvantaged children and their more economically privileged counterparts can be reduced by interventions that encourage parents to talk to their infants frequently. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, it is but I thought I’d follow up with more description of the types of talking and reading that are very helpful to kids’ development. I recently read an article that introduced me to the term “dialogic reading.” To be honest, I had never heard this term before, but once I understood what it was, it seemed to be a natural thing that most parents probably do. I think just about all parents know the importance of reading to your child, but how do you read together? Dialogic reading involves not just reading the book from cover to cover, but asking your child questions about the characters, what they are doing, their colors, etc.
But we need to expand our conceptions of dialogic reading to include the everyday interactions and experiences of young children. The talk that occurs in the course of regular activities (e.g., doing laundry, cooking, walking the dog, watching television) can be every bit as important as the talk that occurs while reading a story. Simply put, we should promote “dialogic living.” This concept should extend beyond parents to all those who care for young children — early learning teachers, home-based caregivers, baby-sitters, and grandparents.
Without dialogic living that centers on rich, positive, and consistent talk, very young children almost surely will not make a strong start toward emotional engagement and early literacy. And early literacy is, perhaps, the single best predictor of later success in school, college, and life.
At a time when the public debate in the United States is riveted on the importance of fixing our underperforming education system, this simple truth — that helping lower-demographic parents understand the value of talking — may be as central to educational improvement as any other single move our society could make. As Hart and Risley and other researchers have shown, early talk plays a major role in language and vocabulary development, which has a dramatic impact on literacy, which in turn is a major predictor of long-term academic and professional success. The links in this long, continuous chain of learning and development start to form at the very beginning of children’s lives.
Words really are power.
Lisa Sunbury says
It's interesting to note that infant specialist Magda Gerber taught parents and educators to talk with babies as if they could understand from birth on. She encouraged exactly the kind of dialogue described in this article, especially during care giving times like diaper changing. Magda believed adults should narrate the action, and then pause to wait for the baby's response before continuing. This approach assumes the baby has the ability and desire to understand, and allows the baby to learn to anticipate what will happen, and thus participate more fully in each experience. Magda believed the best way to help babies develop understanding, vocabulary, and their ability to communicate, was to talk with them. It is simple, every parent can learn to do it, and it costs no money. It's nice to see new research that supports this respectful approach to caring, and validates the power of our words to teach.