This episode revisits the concept of the 30 Million Word Gap concept, which we first covered in an interview with Dr. Doug Sperry a few weeks back.
After she heard that I was going to talk with Dr. Sperry, Dr. Roberta Golinkoff – with whom we discussed her book Becoming Brilliant almost two years ago now – asked to come back on to present a rebuttal. We’re going to learn a lot more about the importance of child-directed speech!
This episode serves two purposes: it helps us to understand another aspect of the 30 Million Word Gap, and it also demonstrates pretty clearly that scientists – both of whom have the best interests of children at heart – see very different ways of achieving that end.
You all know that on the show we pretty much steer clear of the clickbait articles that try to convince you that something is wrong with your child, in favor of getting a balanced view of the overall body of literature on a topic.
But every once in a while a study comes along and I think “we really MUST learn more about that, even though it muddies the water a bit and leads us more toward confusion than a clear picture.”
This is one of those studies. We’ll learn about the original Hart & Risley study that identified the “30 Million Word Gap” that so much policy has been based on since then, and what are the holes in that research (e.g. did you know that SIX African American families on welfare in that study are used as proxies for all poor families in the U.S., only 25% of whom are African American?).
Then, Dr. Doug Sperry will tell us about his research, which leads him to believe that overheard language can also make a meaningful contribution to children’s vocabulary development.
I do want to be 100% clear on one point: Dr. Sperry says very clearly that he believes parents speaking with children is important for their development; just that overheard language can contribute as well.
And this is not Dr. Sperry out on his own criticizing research that everyone else agrees with: if you’re interested, there are a host of other issues listed here.
The overarching problem, of course, is that our school system is so inflexible that linguistic skills – even really incredible ones of the type we discussed in our recent episode on storytelling – have no place in the classroom if they don’t mesh with the way that White, middle-class families (and, by extension, teachers and students) communicate.
But that will have to be an episode for another day.
“Storytelling? I’m already reading books to my child – isn’t that enough?”
Your child DOES get a lot out of reading books (which is why we’ve done a several episodes on that already, including What children learn from reading books, How to read with your child, and Did you already miss the boat on teaching your toddler how to read?.
But it turns out that storytelling benefits our relationship with our child in ways that reading books really can’t, because you’re looking at the book rather than at your child. If you ask your child what kind of story they’d like you to tell, you also get incredible insight into both their interests and concerns – I can attest to this, as I’ve been singing story-songs about poop and various kinds of baby animals who can’t find their mamas on and off for several weeks now (we had an incident a few months back where she couldn’t find me in a store).
In this episode we also discuss the ways that people from different cultures tell stories, and what implications this has for them as they interact with our education system.
Other episodes mentioned in this show:
“How much can there really be to learn about storytelling?” I thought when I started on this mini-series.
It turns out that there’s actually quite a lot to learn, and that family storytelling can be a particularly useful tool for parents. We’re all trying to figure out how to transmit our values to our children, and storytelling can be quite an effective way of doing this. Further, storytelling can be a really valuable way to support children in overcoming traumatic experiences. In this episode we dig into the research on the benefits of family storytelling and look at how to do it.
We’ve done a couple of episodes on reading by now; episode 3 (which seems so long ago!) asked whether you might have missed the boat on teaching your toddler to read. Of course, we know that you’ve only missed the boat on that if you think that sitting your child in front of a video so they can recite the words they see without really understanding them counts as “reading.”
Much more recently in episode 48 we talked with Dr. Laura Froyen about the benefits of shared reading with your child and how to do that according to best practices from the research literature.
Those of you who subscribe to my newsletter will recall that I’ve been working on an episode on storytelling for months now. Part of the reason it’s taking so long is that books on storytelling technique say to use original stories wherever possible because the language in them is so much richer, but if you’ve ever read something like an original fairytale you know they can be pretty gory, and even the most harmless ones actually contain some pretty adult themes if you read between the lines.
So I wanted to know: what do children really learn from stories? How do they figure out that we want them to learn morals from stories but not that animal characters walk on two legs and wear clothes? How do they generalize that knowledge to the real world? And are there specific types of books that promote learning?
Join me in a conversation with Dr. Deena Weisberg of The University of Pennsylvania as she helps us to help our children learn through reading!