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UCLA Study: Give Young Children a Chance to Converse

June 29, 2009 - 11:45am

Words are good. Conversation is better. That's the message of a study released today in the journal Pediatrics that links young children's language skills to the amount of time that adults engage them in back-and-forth exchanges.

Past research, particularly the acclaimed Hart & Risley study, has shown that children's cognitive abilities are strongest among those whose parents use many words in speaking to them. That study emphasized the importance of exposing children not only to directions or comments about their behavior ("drink your milk") but also to new vocabulary words and descriptions of the world around them ("did you see that hummingbird?"). Today's study builds on those findings, showing what many child development experts have stressed for years -- that some of the strongest learning moments happen in interactions between caregivers and young children.

While vocabulary is important, "we find that the effect of the conversation is six times as great as the words," said Frederick J. Zimmerman, the study's lead author and associate professor in the school of public health at the University of California at Los Angeles.

The study is among the first to use small, unobtrusive recording devices that capture all of the sounds and words spoken to and around young children. The gadgets are put in kids' pockets or attached to their clothing. Researchers report that the technology, called LENA (shorthand for Language Environment Analysis), is breaking new ground in the collection of data on children's natural environments. With LENA, researchers can find out a lot about what children experience at home, at school or on the playground without having to plant an observer to take notes on the kids' every move. (By the way, a 2008 article in the New York Times Magazine described how the technology was at one point intended as a tool for parents to determine if their children were getting enough language time.)

Zimmerman and his colleagues used the devices on 275 children, aged 2 months to 4 years old, capturing data in 12-hour time frames once a month for at least six months. Parents who participated -- they were found through local newspaper and direct mail invitations -- received the device in an overnight envelope, attached it to their children when they awoke in the morning, took it off at night and mailed it back to the researchers the next day.

Once the devices came back, researchers used specialized software to sort what was recorded, differentiating monologues from speech that included "conversational turns" or moments when one speaker responds to another. The software also marked which moments included noise from electronic media, primarily television.

Throughout the study, speech pathologists tested children's language skills using an assessment called the Preschool Language Scale.

Results showed that with each increase of 1,000 words in adult speech, children's language skills also increased. And with each 100 conversational turns per day, the language score jumped further.

Parents and care-givers should take these results as evidence, Zimmerman said, of the importance of encouraging children to express themselves and engage in conversations. "One of the goals should be to engage the child in speaking," Zimmerman said. "In language, practice makes perfect."

The study also showed that television noise was associated with lower language scores in children, although when adult conversation was taken into account, the significance of the association disappeared. In other words, it appears that child-to-adult conversations could ameliorate the negative impact on language that the study showed to be associated with TV. Still, Zimmerman advises limits on TV viewing. The data, he said, show that "TV is crowding out time that would otherwise be spent on these conversations."

The study comes on the heels of a study published earlier this month in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine that also used the technology. That study found that when the TV is on, language use decreases among young children and caregivers.

Zimmerman's study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, with data collection paid for by Infoture, Inc., the company that created the technology. Infoture has since been converted to a non-profit organization called the LENA Foundation that is focused on using technology to screen for developmental delays in children and adults.