New study: Chatting with your child may promote early literacy

baby touching woman s face

A new American study published in Pediatrics journal suggests that early talk and interaction with a parent promotes cognitive development in children.

Described as “nothing short of remarkable,” the study found that children who had conversations with their parents early on had better language skills and higher IQ’s a decade later than youngsters who hadn’t:

“These data support the hypothesis that early talk and interaction, particularly during the relatively narrow developmental window of 18 to 24 months of age, can be used to predict school-age language and cognitive outcomes.”

Dr. Lydia Furman, Associate Editor of Pediatrics, noted that this positive outcome remained significant no matter what level of education the mother had achieved:

“I interpret this to mean that even among parents whose literacy may be limited, it is the interaction that counts.”

What matters most, says Dr. Furman, is the quality and not the quantity:

“Beyond more directive interactions (for example, “Let go of your brother!”), conversation is about sharing experiences and expressing feelings, and a meaningful conversation requires the parent to be “tuned in” to the child more than anything else…And even in the face of widespread low parental literacy (14% of Americans cannot read, and almost 1 out of 3 [29%] read below a fifth grade level)4 we can emphasize that talking about pictures and making up your own story are ways for toddlers to truly enjoy a book with their parent, and reap later benefits at school age too…”

Also important, the study finds evidence for the effectiveness of early intervention programs:

“With these findings, we underscore the need for effective early intervention programs that support parents in creating an optimal early language learning environment in the home.”

Sounds great, but could this help children with dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a language-based reading disability, which can impact a child’s ability to pronounce words and learn a second language (more about this in my interview with Professor Maggie Snowling). Given that, I wondered if early conversations between parent and child may have benefits for dyslexic children?

The study doesn’t appear to factor in children with learning disabilities. So I went to my go-to expert, Nancy Young, a reading, spelling, writing specialist based in British Columbia. She read the study and responded:

“Undoubtedly conversing with your child early on has benefits. When it comes to reading (a skill needed for academic success), oral language is very important. Conversing with a child builds knowledge of words and the ways they are used in spoken language, extends background knowledge and likely provides all sorts of additional positive effects.”


While this is great news, Nancy cautions that talking to our children won’t, on it’s own, prevent or remediate dyslexia.

“Sounds wonderful–but I caution parents and teachers not to think this is all that is needed. Here are the “Big 5” of learning to read (source: Five from Five):

1. Phonemic awareness

2. Phonics

3. Fluency

4. Vocabulary

5. Comprehension

You can see that vocabulary is important, but only one of the “Big 5”. Many children also require systematic and explicit instruction/practice in the other 4 components to learn to read.”

Nancy explains:

“In my own private practice I worked with countless children whose parents had talked to them–and read to them–extensively since birth (even in utero). Their verbal communication skills looked normal (sometimes advanced for their age) and their background knowledge was extensive. Some had been tested as having an above-average IQ. Yet, they were failing to learn to read. They successfully learned to read when provided with structured literacy instruction, an approach which systematically addresses all areas of the “Big 5.””

Nancy’s right. This is exactly my experience.

I talked (and read) to my daughter from the moment I found out I was pregnant (“hey in there! it’s mom! what’s going on in there?”). When she was born, the talking and reading continued. As she got older, she joined in on the fun: together, we made up funny words and fake languages. We read and made up stories that required lots of word play and silly sounds (most notably, books by Michael Rosen).

Still. She struggled to learn to read (it was structured literacy reading instruction that taught her that).

Key take-away

This study is a welcome twist on the “read to your child every day” meme. It offers an easy and effective way for all parents to help their children–including those with dyslexia–to develop literacy skills. Anyone can do this, anywhere, anytime. You don’t need to spend a dime on books or computer equipment. You don’t need to be highly literate yourself. You just need some time and imagination.

Still, for us parents of dyslexics, it’s important to remember that reading or talking to your child will not prevent them from being dyslexic (sorry! most of us are born that way!).

Why do it then? Chatting with your baby certainly won’t hurt, and it just might help. Beyond literacy, my family has benefited by talking together early and a lot. It’s great fun, builds vocabulary, sparks creativity and imagination, and it’s a bonding experience that lasts a lifetime.

Dyslexic Library read-aloud recommendation

“We’re going on a bear hunt…Swishy swashy Swishy swashy”









Language Experience in the Second Year of Life and Language Outcomes in Late Childhood (Pediatrics, October 2018)

‘Nothing short of remarkable’: Study finds parents’ chats with their toddlers pay off 10 years later (CBC, Sept. 12, 2018)

The Power of Conversations with Kids (Dr. Lydia Furman, AAP Journals Blog, September 2018)

Start by talking (Harvard Graduate School of Education)

Nancy Young, reading, spelling, writing (website)

Big 5 of learning to read (Five from Five website)

Photo credit

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on

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