May 2018

More Than Idle Talk: The Value of Conversation

New research[1] from the McGovern Institute at MIT has reinforced the notion that quality, back-and-forth language interaction between parent and child is critical to a child’s learning and development.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers identified differences in the brain’s response to language that correlated with the number of conversational turns a child is exposed to. In children who experienced more conversation, Broca’s area, a part of the brain involved in speech production and language processing, was much more active while they listened to stories. More conversational turns boosted brain activity irrespective of parent education or family income.

“Often when people think about trying to close the word gap, all they think about is the quantity of child-directed speech, and this can result in a sort of ‘word dump’ onto the child,” says Rachel Romeo, lead researcher on this study. “But our research suggests that children’s brains care less about the sheer number of words, and more about meaningful, back-and-forth conversational turn-taking between the child and adults. It seems that during these exchanges is when learning really takes place.”

The TMW Center is excited about this research for a variety of reasons. The importance of engaging children in conversation, what we call Take Turns, is a core component of our curricula. The McGovern Institute’s work is a critical reminder that it’s not the quantity of words that matter, rather the parent-child relationship and the interaction it promotes. These findings also support one of TMW’s foundational tenets: within every parent, regardless of education or income, lies the ability to build their child’s brain and shape their future.

We plan to include this research in TMW-Pediatrics, a scalable, technology-based continuing medical education (CME) program we’ll begin piloting this summer. Many parents report having unmet needs related to the type information they desire during pediatric visits. In a survey administered by TMW to 420 parents in Chicago-area clinics and FQHCs, the majority of parents reported discussing traditional preventive topics at the first 6 months of well-child visits, including, feeding (79%) and baby’s weight (67%). Significantly fewer parents reported receiving information about brain growth (32%), how babies learn (21%), and learning to talk (17%). The goal of TMW-Pediatrics is to build on the unique positioning pediatricians have to intervene early and have a lasting impact on a child’s future health and well-being by educating parents about the importance of a rich early language environment. By doing so, physicians can help prevent disparities before they start.


(1) R. R. Romeo, J. A. Leonard, S. T. Robinson, M.R. West, A. P. Mackey, M. L. Rowe, and J.D.E. Gabrieli. Forthcoming. “Beyond the “30 million word gap:” Children’s conversational exposure is associated with language-related brain function.” Psychological Science.

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