Language shapes opportunity

Brains grow through interaction and talk

Babies are born wanting and ready to communicate. Children who experience and take part in lots of conversations in their early years thrive. Brain and language development in the early years are inextricably linked. Babies' brains literally grow and are shaped by the amount and quality of language they encounter.

Language at school entry

The oral language children have when they start school directly impacts on their ability to think and to learn. Some children are starting school with 6,000 words in their expressive vocabulary. Those children are more likely to be able to build relationships, ask for help, express their ideas and opinions and absorb new knowledge and experiences. This is the optimum start.
Other children may start only able to use about 3,000 words. Those children may struggle to express themselves and may find the transition to school more challenging. Along with a lack of vocabulary, they will lack confidence and verbal fluency.

A slow start can have significant negative consequences. Children who are not reading fluently by about the age of eight are at higher risk of disengaging early from education.

Not all talk is equal

Everyday talk often uses quite repetitive and simple words, often instructions (such as - 'Sit down!' 'Eat up'! and 'Get ready!"). Talk that is richer in vocabulary and concepts promotes brain development more effectively. Conversations that go back and forth, where the child responds and contributes (in sounds, gestures and words) stimulate learning pathways in the brain

Rich talk that gives the children new vocabulary to explain new concepts and ideas will expand their knowledge and thinking.

Positive talk, where the child is affirmed and encouraged to contribute is also more positively stimulating than frequent corrections.

The vocabulary in books is often richer and more complex than every day speech. Repeated reading of stories gives children the opportunity to become familiar with that new text.
Giving a child a vocabulary and confidence to talk helps children share their ideas, negotiate with their peers and build relationships with adults. We would like to be able to give all children the means to communicate their ideas and needs and enable their understanding in the school environment and for the reading process.

Families want the best but are not always sure about what to do.

About 40% of the adult population struggle to read to the level society demands. Parents who are not confident readers may not be sure of how to read to their children and may be anxious about reading in case they make mistakes. Some homes have few books and not all families or cultures have a history of reading to children. Families may believe that learning to read is something that only happens when a child starts school. Parental time and work pressure, and the amount of screen time children experience (from TV, phones and computers), may also be having an impact on how much and in what ways parents talk to their children.
van Hees,J (2011), Talking the Talk, Te Kuaka, Issue 3, 2011, Faculty of Education, The University of Auckland, p1

Talking anytime, anywhere

There is growing evidence that those who work in any practice related to children, such as early learning services, schools, family and whānau can all strengthen their ability. The quality of interaction in early learning services is particularly important for infants and toddlers because this is peak brain development time.

A recent Education Review Office (ERO) has mentioned that some early childhood services use only low levels of conversation and closed questioning and those children, particularly toddlers, are not becoming confident communicators and explorers.[1}

ERO has also identified that many children with oral language limitations do not transition well into school. Two New Zealand studies of the emergent literacy practices of kindergarten children and school new entrants point to the lack of deep expertise about oral language. [2]

The van Hees study examining quality and quantity of talk in Years 1-2 classrooms, conducted in Auckland, found 'typical' classroom conditions are less than optimal to support the growth of learners' oral language expression. [3]

Diving into deep layers

Harvard's key concepts - the core stories on brain development:

Why young brains are so good at learning

Harvard Centre on the Developing Child (HCDC) The HCDC has a series of short videos on the main building blocks of development for young children: brain architecture, resilience, serve and return interactions and executive function and self-control.
Serve and return conversations are particularly important. When an infant or young child babbles, gestures, or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words, or a hug, neural connections are built and strengthened in the child's brain that support the development of communication and social skills.

Local insights into learning

In an analysis of the language environment around children in the NZ cohort study of local children Growing Up in New Zealand;
14% of families were only reading to their toddlers once a week or less at age 2
57% of mothers were telling stories weekly or less.
Vocab gap evident by age 2

Longer term prospects in NZ:
87% of students most at risk of not passing NCEA2 have parents with no qualifications (a proxy for low literacy)
47% of Aucklanders have low literacy – 410,000.
70% of students in some schools are below standard at school start.
36% of Auckland students are below reading standard at end of Year 1.
36% of Auckland students are below reading standard at end of Year 1
24% transition to high school below reading standard
79% of children pass NCEA Level 1 literacy
2/3 of students with low literacy at age 8 will have low literacy at 16
23,000 15-24 year olds in Auckland are not in education, employment or training(NEET). 36% of

A growing international focus on 'word gap' programmes

There is a growing body of international research that points to the need to support families to build oral language. There are now numerous international studies examining child language acquisition that reveal causality and consequences of child language advantage and disadvantage. Four UK longitudinal cohort studies have found that the more a parent talks with, listens and responds to a child, the greater the child's language development. The home learning environment before a child turns three (particularly in the first 24 months) influences language acquisition.[1]

A major United States study found significant differences in the amount of talk one to three year olds heard. Over the five years before school, there may be a 30 million word difference between the number of words heard by vulnerable children and those from families with greater socio-economic capital[1]
Hart and Risley found a direct correlation between this 30 million word gap and school readiness. 'With few exceptions, the more parents talked to their children the faster the children's vocabulary grew and the higher the children's IQ test scores at age 3 and later'. The cumulative effect of the expressive gap is long-term and persistent unless the communication environment around them changes.
Read more: Article on Word Gap by National Association for the Education of Young Children

Stress impacts on language acquisition

There are additional risks for particularly vulnerable children. The stress experienced as a consequence of lack of early language and connection is known to disrupt brain development including the areas which support learning, memory and language in the brain. In cases of neglect, the stimulation needed for language development may not be present e.g. caregivers interact less, ignore children more, and use a less diverse range of vocabulary and language structures when communicating with them.

Collective impact for change

  • The US based collective impact Campaign for Grade Level Reading (GLR) has identified language and vocabulary development as key components to school readiness. GLR has a major work-strand on parents as 'first brain builders and coaches.'
  • In 2015, the Clinton Foundation and Next Generation launched a major national initiative 'Too Small to fail'. One action is a major web platform 'Talking is Teaching', to support parents to talk more and differently to their children.
  • The Thirty Million Words Initiative –encouraging parents to use words to grow their children's brains – tune in (pay more attention), talk more and take turns (as opposed to predominantly giving instructions). TMW, developed by the University of Chicago Medicine, has been created to develop evidence-based, parent-directed programs.

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