Thirty million is a big number, it’s a lot of money, a lot of people, a lot of anything. Imagine it in terms of a child’s vocabulary. Imagine if your child heard thirty million fewer words by the age of three than the child sitting next to her in school. Imagine how that would affect her vocabulary.
Research shows that up to 98% of words used by a three-year-old are directly derived from their parents’ vocabulary. They also found that the number of words the children learned varied greatly among socio-economic lines, with children from professional families hearing approximately 30 million fewer words over a child’s first three years.
Birth to three is a critical time for development, the period of time when children’s brains develop 85% of its full potential. It has been found that the single best predictor of a child’s academic success is the quality and quantity of the words they hear in their first three years. The great disparity in words heard before the age of three, termed the Word Gap, is affecting school age children and the divide just continues to grow as children grow older.
Imagine if your child heard thirty million fewer words by the age of three than the child sitting next to her in school. — Aimee Ketchum
Some babies fall victim to the word gap because their parents are living in poverty and dealing with toxic stress. Other parents are simply unaware of the importance of talking to babies from the day they are born, not understanding that babies are listening even if they aren’t showing it. Some parents just aren’t talkative and talking to babies feels unfamiliar or uncomfortable.
As a pediatric occupational therapist, working with babies and young children, I see the frustration of first-graders who struggle to learn to read while their peers excel without issue. I see the vast uneven playing field on which children enter kindergarten, some reading full sentences while others cannot read their own names. The bottom line, talk to your babies and young children!
- Read to them
- Sing to them
- Talk all day long from before they are even born
Spread the word! Human interaction with babies is critical for their language and literacy skills later on.
Talking to your baby might sound obvious, but parents may be missing valuable opportunities to engage with their babies. Here are some practical ways of interacting with babies, toddlers and preschoolers:
- Start before birth by reading, singing and talking to the baby in utero.
- As soon as your baby is born, talk to the baby as if he is part of the conversation, pausing when he would respond, then answering. Studies show that babies understand the pause and flow of conversation as early as three-weeks-old.
- Continue to read books, sing songs, say nursery rhymes, do finger plays, recite poems, and talk to your baby all day.
- Narrate what you are doing while you cook or clean, or dress or bathe your baby.
- Consciously speak in full sentences with detail.
- Talk about everything you see as you are driving in the car, walking in the park or looking out the window with your baby.
- When possible, get face to face with your baby so you can look him in the eye as you have conversations and use a lot of facial expression to keep him engaged. You will notice he is listening when he maintains eye contact and stops sucking on his pacifier.
- Carry babies in vertical baby carriers while you clean the house, make dinner or go for a walk and narrate what you are doing or tell your baby a story as you go.
- Ask toddlers lots of questions, engage them all day long, including them in your daily activities.
- Try muting the TV while watching sports and narrate it yourself for the child, engaging him and making it apply to him.
- While dressing your toddler, be silly. Put her socks on her hands, or her shirt on her feet, encouraging her to speak up and tell you you are doing it wrong.
- Start conversations whenever possible!
Studies show that babies understand the pause and flow of conversation as early as three-weeks-old.
TV, smartphones, computers and other screens do not count as interactions. Babies need person to person interaction to learn vocabulary. The more time that the TV is on, the less time you are interacting with your baby. Toys that talk and make a lot of noise take away from human interactions as well. Keep toys simple and interactive. Think puzzles, blocks, books, puppets, shape sorters, and sensory toys as opposed to electronics.
Get the Free App
Learn more great ideas for interacting with your baby, toddler or preschooler by downloading Aimee’s Babies Word Gap App. Available for free in English and Spanish in the app store and google play. Visit thewordgapapp.com for more information.
Spread the word to other parents about the word gap, and together we can give more babies everywhere the best start possible.
On the Radio
Be sure to listen to our radio interview with Aimee Ketchum. It’s chock full of great tips for parents and caregivers to help give babies their best start in the first year of life.