One of the gifts I had received during my baby shower was “The Read-Aloud Handbook” by Jim Trelease. It was a gift from my aunt, she didn’t make a big deal out of it, just gave me the book and a package of sticky page-markers.
I didn’t start reading it until this month, and I wish I had started it sooner. It really ties together all of the theories and anecdotes I’ve seen about language development in articles, books, radio and TV stories. Reading aloud to children is critical to a child’s interest in reading and later academic success, but it is also an enormous influence in a child’s language acquisition.
Ever heard of the “language gap” or “word gap” in children from different socioeconomic backgrounds? There’s quite a lot that can be said by it.
Consider these stats from Drs. Betty Hart and Todd Risley at the University of Kansas, published as “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children,” and cited by Trelease : among 4-year-olds in 42 families, those from a “professional” family will have heard 45 million words, the working-class child 26 million, and the welfare child only 13 million. This is a reflection of vocabulary exposure through conversation as well as through books, TV, and multimedia. By age three, the professionals’ children of their study had 1,100-word vocabularies and welfare children 525. By the end of the study, IQ scores were 177 versus 79.
Similar figures have been found elsewhere. Dana Suskind, a pediatric surgeon at the University of Chicago, found through research with her hearing-impaired patients that some were able to build their vocabulary easier than others, and this directly related to this same issue. She found that babies and toddlers from low-income families heard far fewer words, which directly impacted IQ and school achievement. She went on to start the Thirty Million Words Initiative, which helps low-income parents in Chicago learn how to improve their own speech with their children using recorders developed by the LENA Foundation.
There are other efforts being made in places like Rhode Island to close this “language gap.” Through an effort called Providence Talks, the city is aiming to coach low-income parents to speak more, and differently, to their children. They found that professional parents tend to “chat away to their children, using sophisticated language even before kids are old enough to understand, while lower-income parents tend to speak far less and use more directives: ‘Do this, don’t do that,'” (this was all covered by NPR recently). California has also launched a media campaign that encourage parents to talk, read and sing more to their babies.
As Trelease points out, all of these children from different backgrounds must show up for kindergarten on the same day, with the low-income child at a 30+ million word disadvantage. There is a seemingly simple solution to this in the home, going to Trelease’s primary point throughout the book — read to your child at home. Why? Most simply put — there are more words in books than they will receive from sitting in front of a TV or other device. Reading will provide your child exposure to a wider vocabulary.
Now, these examples lay fodder for commentary on our educational system and socioeconomic/cultural issues that play into this. All very important. However, I have used them because of how they strongly show the direct correlation between reading and speech with language development.
I look at how I can apply this knowledge to my son’s multilingual environment — how often I read and speak with my son, and the exposure he gets to each language. My mind has been racing with the different approaches we could take. Mind you, we could have no approach, and he would still grow up with both languages like many bilingual children. But with all of this available information of how easily a child’s language acquisition can be influenced, I can’t help but take a more active approach with the end goal of my son growing up to love reading in both English, and Turkish (and who knows, maybe even Korean). A love of reading inadvertently become a love of language.
On our next trip to Turkey, I am going to stock up on a bunch of Turkish children’s books. These can be the special stories only between my husband and my son. Conversely, the English stories would me that of my own and my son. But as it comes to his language development, I want to take it a bit further and see if I can find some books that are published both in English and Turkish. Bilingual children may start using words from each language interchangeably before decidedly choosing whom to direct certain words. He may prefer to use “kitap” instead of “book” before he decides to use both. Or not. But I wonder how it could help him to hear the same story over-and-over, consistently in the language of each parent. Dare I add the third variation in Korean, for his grandmother to read to him? I’m thinking…why not? For as poet David Kherdian said: “What we learn in childhood is carved in stone. What we learn as adults is carved in ice.”
For now, my baby boy, just shy of 6 months, is more interested in sucking and biting his books than in their content. We’ll see how this all plays out over the next few years.