3 Ways To Talk To Your Toddler That Pay Off Academically 10 Years Later

Of course you read and play with your toddler. But new research suggests that there are specific ways to talk to your toddler  - while reading, playing, or, well, just hanging around  - that are associated with reading and math achievement in school 10 years later (click this link for a summary of the study provided by Parents News Now). To learn more about this work, I corresponded via e-mail with Dr. Gina A. Cook, a researcher in the Department of Family, Consumer, and Human Development at Utah State University. Here is Dr. Cook’s take-home message for parents based on the study: 

It’s more than just playing with our children – it’s about how we play with them. The kinds of stimulating activities that are related to later academic outcomes include those behaviors that are slightly above a child’s developmental level such as elaborating on the pictures and words in a book instead of just reading the book, asking open-ended questions, and expanding on what the child is saying or doing.

Dr. Cook provided examples of how each of these principles can be applied when reading to your toddler:

ELABORATING: When reading a book with a dog in it to a 2-3 year old child, instead of just reading the words you might want to point to a picture of the dog and talk about the dog such as what color the dog is, what sound the dog makes, that the dog is like your dog : “Look at the brown doggy, it’s a big doggy, it has spots like our doggy. What sound does the doggy make?”

ASKING OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS: When discussing the dog you could ask the child an open-ended question about what the dog is doing: “Where’s the dog going? Why do you like dogs? What did our dog do this morning?”

EXPANDING: If the child says “doggy” when you turn the page you could say – “Yes, a doggy, the doggy is brown like our doggy.”

Please note that these examples can be applied not just when reading, but also when playing, and really any time you are talking to your child (say if you are out for a walk and you see a dog). This kind of engagement in conversation with your toddler is not only fun for both of you – I would speculate that part of the effect on cognitive development comes directly from the positive affect attached to learning. And do keep in mind that a big reminder from the study is that parents should be sure to give their toddlers plenty of time for pretend play and be active participants – it’s a great opportunity to elaborate, ask open-ended questions, and expand during conversation. And you will see benefits from all this 10 years later in school.

Image of family reading via Shutterstock.com

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  1. [...] and Medical News Today –with more coverage likely to follow. Update: add Parents.com’s Red-Hot Prenting blog, KSL and the Deseret News to the [...]

  2. by lisa

    On March 13, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    Duh. Isn’t this something that comes natural? Something that is already known? I cannot believe that educated people actually spent money studying this.

  3. by RsvlToyMom

    On March 13, 2012 at 10:18 pm

    wish i would have done this 18 years ago with my kids. I pointed to the pictures as we read with more of a focus on phonics and word recognition. Great examples, easy to do….we will be sure to incorporate more of this approach at our storytimes that we do with the toddlers at our stores! Thanks!

  4. by merylenny

    On March 13, 2012 at 11:05 pm

    Is realy helpful but I will like to know how to educate or talk to a tot when they are very agresive

  5. by Elisabeth

    On March 14, 2012 at 1:03 am

    Great information, and NO, it’s not widely known or practiced. As a former pre school teacher I took classes in language development for young children. One can actually stop or re-direct most tantrums in the “Terrible Twos” by learning to ask open ended questions, and by giving choices. I see parents all the time that go through stores and barely talk to their kids… well except for the “Don’t touch that!”, “No, we can’t get that”, etc. Shopping should be a learning experience, not a NO fest.

  6. by DP

    On March 14, 2012 at 5:38 am

    I agree with these suggestions but you have to balance instructional story time with just story time. If you always break up the story the child looses the concept of story as well as e joy of reading when it always becomes a learning task. Just looks at yourself as an adult. Do you always read books that are technical or above your understanding (think tax instructions or physics textbooks) or do you choose things to read because you enjoy them. As always learning is about a balance between play and new experience to help our little ones grow. Ask questions, elaborate, etc when you read, and sometimes read and cuddle just to read and cuddle.

  7. by Ash138

    On March 14, 2012 at 7:45 pm

    We do this with my son all the time! He loves it and doesn’t think of it as “learning” at all. He’s only 2 1/2 so he doesn’t really know that he’s learning something anyway. It’s more interesting than just reading the same books over and over again. In fact he actually has a lot of his books memorized because when we read we talk about the pictures on the page. So he knows that certain words go with certain pictures/pages. Of course when we get a new book we usually just read it one or two times first. Also singing is great. My son has learned many things because they were in a song. He has a lot of songs memorized and can even spell certain colors like red, green and blue because he knows a song for each one. So we made up a song to help him learn how to spell his name. He’s almost there!

  8. by Mary Lou Johnson

    On March 14, 2012 at 8:47 pm

    I’ve been helping parents learn how to help their children learn to talk better for over 36 years, and, NO, these skills do not come naturally to most parents. When I talk with parents about “Talking a book” (describing actions and details in pictures with an eye to the child’s own interests and experiences) rather than always reading the text (which may not fit the pictures all that well), many seem very uncomfortable with this. I agree with Elisabeth who has noticed many parents using “management language” (“NO! Don’t touch that! Cut that out. Get over here.”) rather than engaging, informative language. The latter is a style I wish all parents of young parents would aspire to learn and use. I help parents learn to provide this high-level stimulation in a natural way throughout the day. BTW, I discourage question-asking and encourage the use of informative statements that invite responses. There are many ways to make this happen.

  9. by Mary Lou Johnson

    On March 14, 2012 at 9:04 pm

    In my comment above, I meant to say that the use of engaging, informative language with children is a style I wish all parents of young children would aspire to learn and use.

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