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Talk matters

Published October 10. 2009 09:00AM

A schoolteacher friend of mine from Pennsylvania wrote to me and told me about a study that opened her eyes to a critical need in families. So, I went online and found the information and thought it was important enough to share with my readers.

"The Early Catastrophe," a study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, tells the tale of an experiment they conducted. After two and a half years of observations, the study pointed out the desperate straits some families are in when it comes to basic life skills - such as talking. Yes, talking.

The Kansas researchers took two disparate groups - a section of children from the Turner House Preschool (a facility that is located in the impoverished Juniper Gardens area) and another section of subjects who are children of University of Kansas professors. All of the children were between seven months old and three years old. There were 42 families in the study - 13 "upper" class, 10 "middle" class, 13 "low income" and 6 "welfare." There was a mix of races in each category.

After 1,318 hours of observation in the homes, taping conversations and verbalizations, and transcribing what was heard, the results were uncommonly interesting. Expectedly, 86-98 percent of the words kids used were also used by the parents. However, the type of words used varied greatly by socio-economic level.

The types of "talk" were divided into two topics: affirmative (giving positive feedback or instruction of a teaching nature) and prohibitive (giving negative feedback or dictatorial orders). A chart of the word totals (during a typical session of recording) might help in understanding:

Professional Family: 32 Affirmative, 5 Prohibitive

Blue Collar Family: 12 Affirmative, 7 Prohibitive

Welfare Family: 5 Affirmative, 11 Prohibitive

What is the importance of this study? With all of this talk going on in homes PRIOR to the child's entrance into school, the basis for the child's vocabulary development is established. When a child gets to Kindergarten, his/her experiences form the basis for whatever learning will take place.

I know that I have told my readers about the little girl who came to Kindergarten and knew only three letters of the alphabet - HBO. This same child also was woefully lacking in simple vocabulary and word meanings. She had no idea what "Raise your hand before you yell out" meant.

She had not been taught simple rules of social interaction with her fellow students. Her basic skills were non-existent and it bothered the Kindergarten teacher when she was forced to fail the child and have her repeat the grade.

The failure of this child was a form of child abuse. A parent can spend a few minutes every day with the pre-school child - teaching the alphabet, showing the child how to write his/her own name, instructing in proper manners and behavior, and conversing in meaningful dialogue about daily events.

Talking to your child is the easiest, least expensive, and most effective thing a parent can do.

Talk matters.

(If you would like to contact Dr. Smith, she can be reached at her email address: or in care of this newspaper)

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