The story of early literacy: Small talk means big outcomes

It turns out success in the classroom starts long before a child walks into a school, and researchers are working to determine how parents can foster skills that are foundational to learning to read and engaging in complex forms of thinking. The simplest strategy can be found in everyday conversation. Dr. Daniela O’Neill connects the dots to show how parents’ "small talk" with their kids can have a huge impact.
Dr. Daniela O’Neill sat in a cab this spring headed for the Memphis airport, making her way home after presenting at the Urban Child Institute’s annual symposium, Brain Awareness Night. Taking advantage of the opportunity to be in a car with a baby and language expert, the cab driver put her knowledge to the test.
The cab driver explained that she is helping to raise her baby granddaughter and wants to give her all the advantages that lead to a bright future. “This woman, like so many others, is doing all of the right things,” recalls Dr. O’Neill. “She is reading to her granddaughter, talking with her.” She assured the cab driver she was doing well and offered up some of her most recent research to explain.
 Dr. Daniela O'Neill
O’Neill is a Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario where she also founded and is Director of the UW Centre for Child Studies. For the past twenty years, she and her team have been observing toddlers’ and preschoolers’ communicative development, children’s understanding and production of stories and its relation to more complex thinking, and parent-toddler conversation during toy play and book sharing. She is also the developer of the Language Use Inventory, a standardized parent-questionnaire designed to help speech-language professionals identify delays or impairment in children’s early social communication.
"Almost all children experience the world of storytelling before they begin their journey into the world of mathematical thinking, and there's an intriguing possibility that providing children with experience with storytelling may later enhance their ability to tackle problems in the mathematical arena," said O'Neill.
The study suggested that building strong storytelling skills early in the preschool years may be helpful in preparing children for learning mathematics when they enter school. The research revealed that preschool children whose abilities to retell a story were advanced were more likely to perform well on math tests during school-aged years.
But what constitutes an “advanced” ability to retell stories?
“The connection between math and narrative retelling has so much to do with perspective taking,” she continues. “The beauty of being a scientist is sitting back and really examining, really listening to the small children when they are talking.”
O’Neill acknowledges that real-life parenting does not often yield these opportunities. Rarely are parents noticing what verb tenses their children are using, or if they are describing the mental states of all the characters in a story.  As it turns out, these are important narrative features for preschoolers that indicate “complex” speech.
During her presentation at Brain Awareness Night, appropriately titled “Small Talk with Big Outcomes,” several new and expectant mothers took furious notes.
According to UCI, babies and toddlers need to hear a lot of words—and a wide variety of them—to help shape their understanding of the world around them. And the amount and type of words that a child hears are also driving factors for healthy language development and use.
It’s not a secret to anyone who has taught school-aged children to read that skills like generalizing, predicting, and other non-concrete concepts are hard to grasp. So, what then, can parents do to foster these skills in the early years?
When Dr. O’Neill detailed her latest study to the crowd, everyone’s eyes lit up. It’s expected that children learn this complex talk from watching and listening to their parents reading stories. And most people already know that there is significant benefit to reading to babies and toddlers long before they can read themselves. But, interestingly, Dr. O’Neill and her graduate student, Angela Nyhout, have just shown that the book genre parents choose may be important, too.
In a world of where many toys and publishing companies laud their products as IQ-enhancing, these findings are increasingly important. O’Neill broke it down to two simple categories:  should a parent read a vocabulary based book meant to teach or a wordless storybook?
"Too often, parents dismiss picture storybooks, especially when they are wordless, as not real reading or just for fun," says O'Neill.
In the experiment, 25 mothers were observed and recorded while reading two books to their toddlers—one a wordless storybook and the other a vocabulary style book. “Certain patterns began to emerge,” says O’Neill.
In both cases the moms did a good job “educating” the child by adding information and asking good questions not written on the page. But, when reading the wordless story book, their talk often centered on more abstractions, predictions, feeling words, a variation of verb tenses, and the shifting of perspectives from character to character.
"Books of all kinds can build children's language and literacy skills, but they do so perhaps in different ways," says O'Neill. "It's exciting to find that even short, wordless picture books provide children with exposure to this kind of sophisticated language.”
Admittedly, the two studies have not been linked by research, but, it’s not hard to connect the dots. Parents who read to and model this complex talk to their toddlers may find that those toddlers will go on to be successful story re-tellers in preschool. Those preschool students who utilize complex talk in their retellings have demonstrated higher math scores in grade school.
“Parents are key,” says O’Neill. “Children learn language by being immersed in it; what parents say to them is the data they use to try and break into the language and figure out what it all means. The parents’ talk in the earliest stages gives children that input they need to analyze a language and figure out how it works.”
There are several ways parents can “sneak in” complex talk day to day with their toddlers. Aside from reading books, parents can engage in meaningful language with their children around the house, in the grocery store, or during commonplace activities. In particular, the discussion of feelings may add to a toddler’s ability to partake in different perspectives. O’Neill suggests identifying when a child is feeling something, and why. In some cases, it’s as easy as narrating these daily abstractions aloud to your baby.
“You’re feeling frustrated because the wheels on your car keep coming off.”
“You’re angry because this is a toy you’re playing with and you don’t want to give it to your friend.”
“I can understand you’re upset. You would really like this cereal. It is yummy and I’d like it, too, but it costs too much.”
Back in the cab on the way to airport, the driver asks the language expert to share her most important advice. “I think that parents just need the confidence to know how much their natural efforts can make a difference,” O’Neill replied.

Read more articles by Kate Crowder.

Kate Crowder is a freelance writer and veteran educator who has taught for over a decade in public schools. The longtime Memphian and mother of three is frequently found on the stage as musician, actor, or director when not filling her role as contributor and Assistant Editor at High Ground News.
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