In a recently released article in Pediatrics, Dr. Jill Gilkerson and colleagues ( 10.1542/peds.2017-4276) examine the relationship of language interactions of 18-24 month old children to
their subsequent intelligence and language skills a decade later. The authors found
that “conversational turn count”, a measure of child-adult verbal interaction that
literally counts the turns taken in speaking to one another, is positively associated
with school-age cognitive and verbal outcomes. In an accompanying commentary Drs.
Alan Mendelsohn and Perri Klass discuss the clinical practice and AAP Policy implications
of these fascinating findings. Dr. Jill Gilkerson and colleagues’ work extends earlier
studies showing that (1) the length of children’s statements and their word complexity
at ages 10-36 months predicted third grade academic achievement,1 and (2) the quality of adult words, rather than just the quantity, were important.2 It is remarkable that shared words and conversations between toddlers and their
adults have such a meaningful impact that reaches far into the child’s future.
One can only imagine how challenging it would be to try to hand record child-parent
conversations for even a single day, and certainly even an unobtrusive observer would
impact interactions. The authors used a unique methodology for recording conversations:
they audiotaped parents and children ages 2 to 25+ months for 12 hours daily and analyzed
the recordings with a software called LENA (Language ENvironment Analysis) that uses
automated analysis to quantify words, vocalizations and interactions. Study participants
who had been audiotaped as toddlers then underwent educational testing at age 9-14
years with the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children Fifth Edition (WISC-V), the
Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, and the Expressive Vocabulary Test. Verbal interactions
as measured by “conversational turn count” were positively associated with these outcomes
for those taped at 18-24 months. It was curious that this same relationship of “conversational
turn count” to cognitive outcomes was not detected for those taped at 2-17 months
or at 25+ months, and the authors discuss this conundrum.
Interestingly, the association between “conversational turn count” and child outcomes
remained significant after controlling for maternal attained education. I interpret
this to mean that even among parents whose literacy may be limited, it is the interaction
that counts. Beyond more directive interactions (for example, “Let go of your brother!”),
conversation is about sharing experiences and expressing feelings, and a meaningful
conversation requires the parent to be “tuned in” to the child more than anything
else. In their commentary, Mendelsohn and Klass (10.1542/peds.2018-2234) appropriately emphasize the potential role of Reach Out and Read in promoting verbal
exchanges.3 And even in the face of widespread low parental literacy (14% of Americans cannot
read, and almost 1 out of 3 [29%] read below a fifth grade level)4 we can emphasize that talking about pictures and making up your own story are ways
for toddlers to truly enjoy a book with their parent, and reap later benefits at school
age too. A book invites a conversation, while an electronic screen is socially isolating
– we now have one more good reason to turn off digital devices!
1. Hart B and Risley TR. Meaningful differences in everyday parenting and intellectual development in young
American children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes, 1995.
2. Rindermann H and Baumeister AEE. Parents’ SES vs. parental educational behavior
and children’s development: A reanalysis of the Hart and Risley study. Learning and Individual Differences, 2015; 37, 133-138.