All posts tagged Hartt Risley study

It’s Simple: Talk More

In their 1995 study, Betty Hart, Ph.D., and Todd R. Risley, Ph.D. made a revelatory discovery: a child’s academic success at age 9 and 10 is directly linked the the number of words spoken to them before age 3.

Most revelatory discovery was that the “type” of language used isn’t as important as the amount.

Risley notes that both talkative and non-talkative (taciturn) parents use the same amount of “command” type talk, including directives like “No”, “Come here”, and “Stop that”. While the taciturn parents use almost entirely command talk, the extra talk from the more talkative parents is automatically more positive and complex:

“It was ‘chit-chat’ and gossip and running commentary that was automatically rich in the varied vocabulary, complex ideas, subtle guidance, and positive reinforcement that are thought to be important to intellectual development — the ‘good stuff’ of Developmental Psychology.”

The implications are that if we can simply talk more to our children, the commands will remain constant; thus, our ratio with enriched speech will improve the more we speak.

“ We don’t have to (try to) get parents to learn how to talk differently to their children. We just have to help them practice talking more.“


“Many parents are raised in a family culture of sociability. They give to their babies the benefits of the activities and conversation they share and the vocabulary growth it engenders. And, they pass on to their babies the culture of sociableness (and conversation) itself, a pattern that is repeated for generations to come. These are advantaged families and advantaged children. But in many of the family subcultures of poverty, the hours of babies’ lives are mostly empty of adult-provided structure and symbolic accompaniment and interaction is only when necessary. To change these family subcultures we must focus on teaching parents, and potential parents, how to fill up all the awake time of babies with activities and conversation so that they are accumulating as much coherent and symbolic experience and social dance practice as their advantaged American age-mates – hour after hour, day after day, month after month from the very beginning.”

How can we start to talk more?

Turn off the TV. The verdict is in: For every hour a television was turned on, babies heard 770 fewer words from an adult. 

Form new associations. For instance, while you are doing your child’s hair, recount to them the kinds of styles your mom did your hair in. Talk about animals that also have long enough hair to brush or braid.

Give a running commentary. While you are occupied with something, for instance, cooking dinner, describe your actions as though you are recording a youtube how-to video. Count the stairs as you climb. Describe your actions and outfit as you get dressed in the morning. Even if your child isn’t paying attention, they are absorbing your language and increasing their intellectual capacity.

Be mindful of technology. I’m a big offender here. I like to use the internet for communication as much as (or more than) the next person, so I try to take moments to think of ways to introduce kids to the topics I’m reading or discussing.  For instance, an article about currency inflation may bore my 4 year old, but I can use the opportunity to give her an “intro-level” discussion about what money is and why we use it. If I have to send a message I will often speak my message as I am typing.
Do you have any ideas for increasing talk-time? Share them in the comments! (Or, turn of your computer and go talk to your kids!)