The secret to clever children starts with parents who talk a lot
The Sector > Research > The secret to clever children starts with parents who talk a lot

The secret to clever children starts with parents who talk a lot

by Freya Lucas

May 01, 2019

A major study, led by researchers from the University of York, has identified a link between children hearing high quantities of adult speech, and the child’s subsequent performance in tasks testing their non-verbal abilities, such as reasoning, numeracy and shape awareness.


Researchers said they gained “unprecedented insight” into the secret lives of preschoolers by fitting tiny audio recorders into the clothing of children aged two to four years. 107 children were recorded in their home environments, interacting with parents and caregivers.


The findings will likely be of interest to the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector as they seek to work with parents and caregivers to support children to have the best start in life. The National Quality Framework offers the following, in relation to partnerships with parents and caregivers, with a view to developing learning:


The NQF acknowledges a view of children in the context of their family and community, that families are children’s first and most influential teachers. It is envisaged that education and care services will actively seek out partnerships and develop secure respectful relationships to ensure that families are informed, consulted and supported in regards to their child’s learning and development.


During the study, parents were asked to complete activities with their children involving drawing, copying and matching tasks, designed to test their child’s cognitive skills. Lead author of the study, Katrina d’Apice, said that using the audio recorders allowed researchers to study “real life” interactions between young children and their families in a realistic setting, giving legitimacy to the results.


“We found that the quantity of adult spoken words that children hear is positively associated with their cognitive ability. However, further research is needed to explore the reasons behind this link – it could be that greater exposure to language provides more learning opportunities for children, but it could also be the case that more intelligent children evoke more words from adults in their environment,” Ms d’Apice said.


Researchers also found that high quality adult speech may have benefits for children’s linguistic development, as the children in the study who interacted with adults who used a diverse vocabulary knew a greater variety of words themselves.


The study also used the recordings to analyse the impact of different parenting styles on children’s behaviour. Positive parenting – where parents respond to and encourage exploration and self expression – was associated with children showing fewer signs of restless, ‘aggressive’ or ‘disobedient’ behaviour.


Senior author of the study, Professor Sophie von Stumm said “This study is the largest naturalistic observation of early life home environments to date.


“We found that the quantity of adult spoken words that children were exposed to varied greatly within families. Some children heard twice as many words on one day as they did on the next.


“The study highlights the importance of treating early life experiences as dynamic and changeable rather than static entities – approaching research in this way will help us to understand the interplay between environmental experiences and children’s differences in development.”


The study, A naturalistic home observational approach to children’s language, cognition, and behavior is available to view here.

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