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September 30, 2018

Want smarter kids? Talk with them.

Research on early learning often points to poverty as one of the main predictors of a child’s academic outcomes — the lower the income, the lower the early reading scores, for instance — but there is little known about environmental factors that impact specific parts of the brain.

A new study reveals that adult-child conversation, regardless of household income level, may lay the foundation for better lifelong readers and speakers.

The study, Adult-child Conversations Strengthen Language Regions of Developing Brain, found that back and forth conversations related to stronger connections between brain regions critical for comprehension and speech among children between the ages of 4 and 6 who participated.

The findings build on the now-dated but often referenced “30 million word gap,” in which researchers reported that children of educated, high-earning parents heard more words than children of parents from lower-income households.

The “30 Million Word Gap” became a common data point to convey the disparity facing children in low-income households, but these latest results suggest that having conversations impacts neural language development over and above income level or the sheer quantity of words heard.

“I was interested in the word gap phenomenon and wanted to know, was it just the amount of words children learned that set their trajectories? It wasn’t about the volume of words, it was about conversational turns. We found they were linked to brain measure,” Dr. Rachel R. Romeo, one of the study’s authors and post-doctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston Children’s Hospital, said.

While the 30 Million Word Gap study findings have helped deliver the message of the importance of funding early education programs, the latest evidence supporting the power of conversation paints a new opportunity available to all.

“It out-predicted income or parent education level. Anyone can do this with their children,” Romeo said. And she urges adults do so from day one.

Conversing with infants who are still building a lexicon can be a challenge for some adults, especially for many who assume learning comes later, but “they’re building brain connections as soon as they’re born, and you want to harness that sensitive period,” Romeo said.

“With an infant, a conversation can be making sounds at each other like cooing, ah-ing or even making faces. Any sort of ‘serve and return’.”

She hopes the findings will help dispel the myth that kids don’t learn until they’re older, or that they’ll learn in school.

“We should remember they learn language before they can talk back and are learning from everything they hear around them,” she said.

For parents who are fluent in a language other than the one spoken outside the home, stick with the fluent language first, she said. Young brains will have an easier time building on native fluency.

This story comes from a partnership between the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and the Herald-Tribune, funded by The Patterson Foundation, to cover school readiness, attendance, summer learning, healthy readers and parent engagement. Read more stories at

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