Mind the Gap: Why Conversation With Our Kids is So Important

Louise O’Toole is a Specialist Speech & Language Therapist working for the award winning Cheshire & Merseyside Hearing Impairment Network from Alder Hey Children’s NHS Foundation Trust

How soon should we start having conversations with our children?

a) When they’re in the womb?
b) When they’re born?
c) When they’re about 2?

A few years ago, a colleague put out a questionnaire to parents and parents-to-be that included this very question and was shocked to find that some gave ‘c’ as their answer. On further exploration, she discovered that some people gave this answer because, in their minds, children started ‘talking properly’ at 2, so it made sense to talk back to them at this point.

But how can we expect children to have the language needed for conversation if no one is having conversations with them in the first place?

As a speech and language therapist I spend a large amount of time talking to parents about the ways they can develop their children’s language skills. If I’m visiting families in their homes, I try not to take any toys or games with me as I find that some parents who see their children using language whilst playing with a particular toy or reading a specific book, usually want to know where I got it from, so they can go and purchase it too.

It’s not always easy to get across that there is no magical product, or shortcut to developing children’s communication skills. The good news, however, is that what does help is something we’re already doing each and every day and – even better – it’s free.

So back to the initial question – when should conversations with our children begin? There’s fascinating research that indicates a newborn baby, mere hours old, can tell the difference between languages. Possibly this information is less surprising when you take into account that the ability to hear develops from the 18th week of pregnancy onwards. What it means is by birth, they are already primed and ready to start on their communication journey.

But it’s a journey they can’t make alone. To use language, they need have people who have taken that self-same journey to show them the way. The complexities of what they’re learning to do is frankly staggering. They’re mastering words, both their meanings and how to actually say them, and then how to put them into sentences. They’re getting a handle on how words can change if we’re talking about something we’re doing now, versus something we did last week or one thing versus many.

It’s fascinating to look back on my daughter’s own communication journey, to remember how in the space of just 12 months her language went from short phrases like ‘rabbit, all wet’ to ‘Eva, you can’t come in because mummy and daddy are asleep, okay? Don’t wake them up.’

As we age and mature, not only do our vocabularies expand, we’re constantly refining our communication skills to master the subtleties to know that expressions such as ‘raining cats and dogs’ (fortunately) shouldn’t be taken literally, and that ‘stinky head’ is an appropriate name for your big brother, but not for your teacher or the dentist.

There are mind-boggling statistics that say by the age of 6 children will have a vocabulary of 14,000 words. 14,000. That works out, according to Carey (1978), that between the ages of 18 months and 6 years old, children need to learn on average 8 new words a day. That can feel like a mammoth task, but it’s actually not, if children have access to good quality conversation that’s appropriate for their age.

Different research has produced some more mind-blowing numbers – that by the age of 4, there can be a 30 million word gap between children exposed to good quality conversation and those who aren’t. And once again, this isn’t down to having access to educational toys or the latest gadgets. This is simply about talking to each other.

Even in today’s busy lives there are still opportunities for us to do that – car journeys, over meals, bath times. Talking about everyday activities may seem mundane for an adult, but all of those moments are ripe for us to start a conversation with our children that gives them the opportunity to hear language in action. Even when children don’t yet have the words to take a turn in the conversation, it’s still vital that we talk to them like they can – saying our part and then leaving that gap for them to smile or make a sound that we can interpret as their turn. In these technology-driven times, when it can be difficult to resist the pull of devices ourselves, we have something unique that we can offer our children – something that television and tablets can’t.

So, chat with your kids. It’s not rocket science, but it can offer them an incredible view of their world just the same.

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