Interaction During Reading Helps Develop Kids’ Language Skills

UI study finds how caregivers respond to the sounds babies make during book reading could be link to language development in young children.

Next time you read to your baby, pay attention to his babbling and respond.

Interaction, not just the sound of words being read from a page, is the key to language development during reading.

That’s according to a new study from the University of Iowa that looked at how mothers responded to their 12-month-olds during book reading, puppet play, and toy play. What researchers found is the babies made more speech-like sounds during reading than when playing with puppets or toys. They also discovered mothers were more responsive to these types of sounds while reading to their child than during the other activities.

The findings might explain why book reading has been linked to language development in young children.

“A lot of research shows that book reading even to infants as young as six months of age is important to language outcomes, but I’m trying to explain why by looking at the specifics, which could be responding to speech-like sounds,” says Julie Gros-Louis, assistant professor of psychology at the UI and corresponding author on the study, published in January in Language Learning and Development.

“If we know what specific interactions are occurring between caregiver and child and we can link that to language outcomes, then it wouldn’t just be telling parents, ‘Read a lot of books to your kids,'” Gros-Louis adds. “That would definitely be important to tell them, but you could also identify specific behaviors to do during book reading.”

The study also found that no matter the context, mothers’ responses to speech-like sounds were often imitations or an expansion of the sound. For example, if the baby said, “Ba,” the mother would respond with “Ba-ba” or “Ball,” even if it had nothing to do with the story being read. Mothers frequently provided labels during reading, too.

Gros-Louis says she used mothers and their babies for this study because their interactions have been studied more than those between fathers and their children. Thus, she could more readily compare her findings to past studies.

In this case, researchers observed the interactions of 34 mothers and their 12-month-olds during three 10-minute periods of different activities: puppet play, toy play, and book reading. The hand puppet was a cloth monkey; the toy was a Fisher-Price barn with manipulative parts, such as buttons to push and knobs to turn; and the books had bright pictures and simple sentences rather than single words or labels. The babies were seated in a high chair to control proximity to their mothers and to prevent them from getting up and moving around the play room.

Researchers then coded each child’s vocalizations and his or her mother’s responses. Vocalizations included any sound the baby made except distress cries and fusses, hiccups, coughs, and grunts. Mothers’ responses were coded for verbal content in the following categories: acknowledgments (“mmm-hmm,” “uh-huh”); attributions (“it’s pretty”); directives (“push that”); naming (“it’s a ball”); play vocalizations (“getcha!”); questions; and imitations/expansions.

Image of a grandma reading to her two grandchildren.
A new UI study finds babies make more speech-like sounds during reading than when playing with puppets or toys—and mothers are more responsive to these types of sounds while reading to their child than during the other activities. Image is for illustrative purposes only.

“The current findings can contribute to understanding how reading to preverbal infants is associated with language outcomes, which is not well understood in contrast to reading interactions with older toddlers,” according to the study.

This isn’t the first time Gros-Louis has studied how mothers respond to the babbling of their infants. In a study published in 2014, she and researchers from Indiana University found mothers who consciously engaged with their babbling 8-month-olds could accelerate their children’s vocalizing and language learning.

[divider]About this neurodevelopment and language research[/divider]

Source: Sara Diedrich – University of Iowa
Image Credit: The image is in the public domain
Original Research: Abstract for “The Influence of Interactive Context on Prelinguistic Vocalizations and Maternal Responses” by Julie Gros-Louis, Meredith J. West & Andrew P. King in Language Learning and Development. Published online January 6 2016 doi:10.1080/15475441.2015.1053563


Abstract

The Influence of Interactive Context on Prelinguistic Vocalizations and Maternal Responses

Many studies have documented influences of maternal responsiveness on cognitive and language development. Given the bidirectionality of interactions in caregiver-infant dyads, it is important to understand how infant behavior elicits variable responses. Prior studies have shown that mothers respond differentially to features of prelinguistic vocalizations that reflect phonological complexity; however, studies have also found that maternal responses vary as a function of interactive contexts. Thus, it is important to examine how infant phonological features and social context interact to influence maternal responsiveness because language development occurs in social interactions and moment-to-moment behaviors influence development. In the current study, we examined how maternal responses vary relative to infant vocal production and interactional context: puppet play, toy play, and book reading. Infants produced more syllable-like, consonant-vowels (CV) than vowel-like sounds (V) during book reading. Mothers responded to proportionally more CV vocalizations during book reading and puppet play than during toy play; however, it was only during book reading that mothers responded to CV sounds more than V sounds. Overall, mothers responded to CV sounds with imitations/expansions significantly more than other response types. Examining responses within contexts, however, acknowledgments were the most frequent response type, with naming responses during book reading and questions in the puppet context also occurring frequently. Therefore, maternal responses varied relative to both vocal characteristics and context, suggesting key variables in social interactions that may support language development.

“The Influence of Interactive Context on Prelinguistic Vocalizations and Maternal Responses” by Julie Gros-Louis, Meredith J. West & Andrew P. King in Language Learning and Development. Published online January 6 2016 doi:10.1080/15475441.2015.1053563

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  1. Pre-language communication with infants is tonal. The sounds a child makes indicate the sounds that will be heard most efficiently. I had a “conversation” with my two-week old daughter by responding to her “ooh” sounds with my “ooh” sounds. My “ooh-ooh” made her
    respond, “ooh-ooh.” So, just imitate the sound the baby makes and connect; then elaborations can be invented. Same with language when a child is attempting words–repeat the word being attempted so that the brain hears the correct pronunciation. When training for bilingualism the European method is wonderful, one parent should speak one language to the child and the other parent speak the second language to the child. Kids will make the connection over time. Also, teach sign language (see “Sign to Me” website). Much fussiness and frustration is avoided by using sign language from age 6 months and older. Then match words to sign language. Looking at pictures builds vocabulary. Stills are much better than videos or TV for examining details, and the eyes will move and progress more in scanning, fixations and smooth eye-hand pursuit when touching/pointing or moving toys.

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