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 a child in conversation, what we call Take Turns, is a core component of our curricula.  These findings also support a foundational tenet of our work: the belief that 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-Pediatrician, a scalable, technology-based continuing medical education (CME) program we’ll begin piloting this summer. Our goal is to improve doctor-parent communication related to early learning and early brain development by highlighting strategies and tools for sharing information and demonstrating behaviors. Pediatricians, along with other healthcare professionals, are uniquely positioned to intervene early and have a lasting impact on a child’s future health and well-being. Through educating parents about the importance of a rich early language environment, they 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.