Any education expert will tell you that a child’s home environment is critical to shaping their future — well before they even enter school.
By a child’s fourth birthday, their future aggression levels can be predicted by the quality of their relationship with their parents and the extent to which they have learned to control their emotions. By age six, a child’s language development and ability to focus their attention predict their later school performance and future employment prospects.
Parents have long been told that reading to their child is an essential facet of good parenting. A bedtime story can help to immerse a child in language and build those essential caregiver bonds.
Reading is promoted particularly to low-income families to bridge the “word gap”. Researchers have found that not only do the number of words toddlers hear from their family predict future school achievement, but also that, by their third birthday, children from poor families have heard on average 30-million fewer words than children from middle-class families. In South Africa there has been a strong focus on reading to your child.
But research published in recent months suggests that reading might not be enough, especially for preschool children. The Lena Research Foundation found that, rather than the number of words heard by the child, it is actually the nature of the conversational exchange between parents and their child that really matters. What seems to be most important for child language development is the extent to which parents and children take turns when speaking (or even babbling) to each other. Children who were more engaged in this kind of conversational turn-taking between birth and age three were more likely to enjoy advanced school performance and language ability a decade later. In fact, once the number of “conversational turns” had been accounted for, the effect of the number of words heard on children’s later academic performance was relatively weak.
The importance of conversational turns was supported by findings from a second study, also published in 2018, by researchers at Harvard University. They used brain scanning technology to examine children’s brain activity while either being read to or engaging in conversation. They found that the parts of the brain associated with language development were particularly activated during conversational turns and that it was this activation that best predicted child language learning.
An important conclusion that we can draw from these two studies is that simply reading a book to a child has the limitation of involving few, if any, conversational turns.
We need a subtle but powerful shift in focus in our approach to language development in very young children. Book-sharing offers this shift.
Book-sharing is a technique for engaging children in the exploration of wordless picture books while gently questioning and supporting them in a two-way verbal exchange. Parents can be shown how to lead a child through a story using questions such as “What is happening here?”, “What do you think will happen next?” or “How do you think she feels right now?”
Although any picture book could facilitate this type of interaction, wordless picture books are uniquely well suited for supporting child development because they require parents and children to discuss the pictures to make sense of the story. They are also fun and effective, especially if parents are not comfortable with reading words themselves.
This sharing activity has long been recognised in international literature as being extremely beneficial for young children. In 2014, Stellenbosch University evaluated a book-sharing programme with parents of one- to two-year-old children in Khayelitsha in Cape Town. This programme showed enormous gains for child language and cognitive development.
Remarkably, these gains were achieved irrespective of the levels of poverty or education in the families. The World Health Organisation has subsequently endorsed this programme, and a second evaluation in Khayelitsha will be concluded this year.
This does not mean that you shouldn’t read to your child. Reading to children is an activity they enjoy and one that is enormously helpful for widening their experience and understanding; and it is an activity that parents should continue for as long as their children enjoy being read to. But the recent research suggests that, with preschool children, a book-sharing approach that maximises conversational turns is especially beneficial to their development.
David Jeffery is programmes specialist at the Mikhulu Child Development Trust, which bridges the gap between academic research on families and the networks that support them