While reading to your baby, it may be the back-and-forth cooing and talking, not just the sound of words being read from a page, that is the key to language development, according to new research at the University of Iowa (UI).
For the study, researchers observed how mothers responded to their 12-month-old babies during book reading, puppet play, and toy play. They found that the babies made more speech-like sounds during reading than when playing with puppets or toys. They also discovered that mothers were more responsive to these types of sounds while reading to their child than during the other activities.
These findings might help explain why reading has been so strongly associated with 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,” said Dr. Julie Gros-Louis, assistant professor of psychology at the UI and corresponding author on the study.
“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 said. “That would definitely be important to tell them, but you could also identify specific behaviors to do during book reading.”
The researchers also found that no matter the context, mothers’ responses to speech-like sounds were often imitations or an expansion of the sound. For instance, if the baby said, “Ba,” the mother might respond with “Ba-ba” or “Ball,” even if it had nothing to do with the story. Mothers also frequently pointed at objects in the pictures and identified them, such as “horse.”
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. That would make it easier to compare the current results to past findings.
In the current study, researchers observed the interactions of 34 mothers and their 12-month-old babies 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 and knobs; and the books had bright pictures and simple sentences rather than single words or labels.
The babies were placed in a high chair to control proximity to their mothers and to prevent them from getting up and moving around the room.
Researchers then coded each child’s vocalizations and the 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.
“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,” write the researchers.
The findings are published in the journal Language Learning and Development.