Talking to toddlers

At a science museum today with my two year old nephew (and various and sundry other relatives), I held his hand and showed him the antelope exhibit.

“See, that’s an antelope.  Can you say that?”

“Annalope!”  We walked to the next exhibit.

“Oh, this is a different kind of antelope.”

“Anonner one!  And anonner one!”  He pointed.  Then he asked, “What’s he eating?”

“He’s eating the grass.”

“Annalope eating da grass.”

I got bored of all the antelope displays, and looked ahead.  “Ooh, would you like to see a lion?”

“Wion!”  So we moved on to the lion display.  “Wion!  Anonner one!”

“Yes, there are more lions.  Shall we count them?  One, two, three, four.  There are four lions.”

“Four wions.”  He paused, and looked at the lions with interest.  “Toes.”

“Yes,” I said, “lions do have toes.  In their paws.”

“Toes in dere paws.”

And so on.  Later, walking back to the car with my brother-in-law, I told him how wonderful it was to talk to his son and teach him things, and how it made my kind of angry at the same time, to think of all the other two year olds who are not being talked to.

“No one is talking to them, or listening to them.  Their parents think of toddlers as sort of overgrown babies who can’t really learn or do anything.  They yell at them, tell them No! or Stop that! or Be Quiet!, they feed them, dress them, and they love them, but they don’t talk to them.  And so they don’t really learn how to talk all that well…..And then they end up in my class.”

I told my brother-in-law about the most important study/book about education and poverty, Meaningful Differences, by Hart and Risley.  Children from families in poverty are talked to so much less than children in families with professional parents that they arrive in kindergarten with a word deficit in the thousands, having heard millions of fewer words in their little life times.

“So, some kids are already screwed when they’re three?” my brother-in-law asked.

And unfortunately, some of them are.  Those of us who are their teachers need to do as much as we can to provide them with rich experiences and lots of vocabulary to try to address the word gap. 

And it sure would be nice if teachers and policy-makers and people who care about the achievement gap could figure out a way to encourage more parents to talk to their toddlers.


12 thoughts on “Talking to toddlers

  1. As the parent of a 5 year old and 2 year old and a first grade teacher, I feel the exact same way as you. I revel in the discussions I have with my girls, the time spent reading together, etc. and yet my frustration is immeasurable when I think of the early lives of most of my students and many, many children around the country.

    I’m unfamiliar with the title you reference here but I have just requested it from the library. Thank you for the tip.

  2. Amen to that, Sista!! You’ve just perfectly described the problem with 95% of my babies!! I used to just take for granted that other parents were like my parents were, or like I am as a parent. But, working in “the hood” for the past 12 years has shown me how absolutely WRONG I was. It’s just so sad. I just have to constantly remind myself that it’s not the babies’ faults, and I need to do all I can to help them ‘catch up’ as much as I can. But, I don’t think you can ever completely make up for all the precious lost learning time 😦

  3. Try reading Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne. It will open your eyes to more than just the lack of language usage in poorer households.

  4. I have an (almost) two year old nephew too! He’s a blast, and so talkative. My two children just adore him. You are right. It is sad to see that happening, and I see it in some of my students in my classroom too. I tell parents to talk, read and sing to and with their children. Our city has outreach programs trying to help with this issue, so I have some hope for future students.

  5. I couldn’t agree with you more! After 15 years of teaching public pre-k in the city I can attest to the fact that what you say is 110% true!!! If only we could get parents to realize that. Almost ALL of my students come in with speech problems, whenever we do get the rare kid who has good vocab and oral language it’s startling because you can see the HUGE difference between that one kid and the entire rest of the class.
    So sad…

  6. YES! And thanks so much for the book recommendation–I’m sick to death of that badly written and researched Ruby Payne book (though I credit her for making the poverty issue in ed. more known).

    I love when my students and I can just talk and sometimes I leave plenty of time to just answer all the crazy questions they have but nobody spends time to answer. They’re starving for answers and conversation!

  7. I haven’t thought about this for awhile but it is too true. And unfortunately, too many parents of preschoolers are not really talking to them either – too busy on the cell phone.

  8. Jenny and Ninja, I hope you enjoy reading the book. It’s well worth it, and I think I’m going to read it again soon, as it has been a few years since I’ve read it.

    ChiTown Girl, it’s something that is hard to get used to. Perhaps you never do. Anyway, you’re doing everything you can to help them catch up, and that is really important work.

    EngTeach, I have read Ruby Payne. And it is important to think about things from the parents’ perspectives. All the same, if the children are going to have a chance in life, they need to know how to talk, how to read, how to be successful in school, how to learn as much as possible. And the sooner we can help children tune in to the wonders of the world ), the better.

    Mrs. V, aren’t two year old nephews awesome? My boys think everything their little cousin does is wonderful, and we all enjoy spending time with him (not to mention his wonderful 4 year old brother).

    Vanna, thanks for the support. And prettyhowtown, thanks for the vociferous (or should that be voice-iferous) support!

    Juliann, ugh, parents on their phones instead of talking to their kids. That’s too bad. I hope that once they hang up, though, they talk to their children a lot to make up for it.

  9. Very good point here. Toddlers are smart as heck. You must talk to them as if they are valuable. You have to educate them, show them, love them, hug them, tell them how much you appreciate them, etc. It’s an important time in their life. The brain develops more in the first 6 years than ever.

  10. Pingback: meaningful differences « Elbows, knees, dreams

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