Prestigious schools, award-winning teachers, intensive programs — these things are all supposed to guarantee academic success for your child, right? Turns out, a child’s performance starts before he or she even first enters the classroom. Studies show the foundation for academic excellence begins at home, during the first few years of a child’s life, and is reliant on how parents speak to their children — this is because the number of words that a child is exposed to at a young age has an astronomic effect on their education long-term.

This importance of vocabulary was first discovered in the mid-1980s by Kansas-based psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley. The two noticed that a program designed for academic success was not working, prompting them to investigate. Sampling the various words spoken to children within homes of different socioeconomic levels, the psychologists found there is an enormous discrepancy in verbal expression between homes of different status.

Children living in wealthier professionals’ homes heard an average of more than 1,500 more spoken words each hour than those in welfare homes (as well as greater variance in tone, complexity of words and the types of messages communicated). Over one year, this difference totaled eight million words, and by age 4, totaled 32 million words.

After analyzing the information, Hart and Risley found there is a direct correlation between verbal exposure up to this age and later development. Children who came from households of higher socioeconomic status were familiar with many more words, and this led to successful cumulative learning not only in vocabulary, but also in language development, reading comprehension and other areas.

The word-gap phenomenon Hart and Risley established is still very much prevalent today, but many resources are now available online for tips on how to narrow it and make your home one that offers open dialogue and a wide, exciting vocabulary. To help you build a strong foundation for your child, we’ve gathered a few tips you can employ at home:

Speak to and with your child often. Frequent exposure to different words is key. Be sure to use words of varying difficulty, and use different gestures and tones to reinforce meaning.

Be aware of how you are speaking in the home. Hart and Risley’s study showed that children have almost identical word usage, speech patterns and conversation-length to their parents’, so how you talk to your child and the conversations he or she hears will reflect in him or her later.

Read to your child often. Studies have shown this activity is essential, having highly positive effects regardless of race, gender, class, ethnicity, education level, etc.

Provide positive feedback to your child as much as possible. This encourages him or her to be open, expressive, and curious about vocabulary and learning in general. Set high expectations, but teach your child to learn from setbacks, as opposed to treating them as personal limits. Studies show that people who believe they can achieve personal growth actually accomplish more over time.

Consider practicing baby sign language. This activity encourages attention and communication between parent and child, and requires vivid expression and practice.

Using these strategies diligently will help prepare your child for the classroom and stretch the long-term capacity of his or her mind. Your child’s academic success begins at home, so if you’re focusing on communication, be assured that you are putting your child on the right trajectory for huge success in school.


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