Fathers should be engaged in programmes to address the child vocabulary gap between richer and poorer families

Photo: Gilbert Mercier. Creative Commons.

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A study of African-American fathers in low-income families has found a link between fathers who ask their two-year-olds who-what-where-when-why-how questions and the children’s improved vocabulary and higher verbal reasoning skills. Earlier research had shown that fathers use these questions more than mothers do, on average.

The new evidence again shows that it’s important to engage fathers in infant speech development if we’re to narrow the vocabulary gap between children in lower- and higher-income families.

The research focused on two aspects of how parents support a young child’s speech development: (1) how often the father uses who, what, where, when, why and how questions, and (2) how much the father repeats words. Fathers and their two-year-olds were videotaped at home for 10 minutes of semi-structured play. Their conversation was transcribed and analysed for the use of who, what, where, when, why and how questions and for repetition of words.

The 41 fathers of two-year olds in this study varied widely in their practices. Though on average low-income fathers scored less than middle-class fathers on vocabulary scores, some of the fathers in this sample were highly communicative by any standards, including by comparison to middle-class fathers in other studies.

The researchers found that the children of fathers who used more who, what, where, when, why and how questions were more likely to have better vocabularies and also to score higher on verbal reasoning tests one year later. There was no such correlation for yes/no questions, nor the total number of words the father used. This suggests that who, what, where, when, why and how questions play a particular role in developing a child’s vocabulary.

Meanwhile, the better the child’s vocabulary, the less likely fathers were to repeat words. The finding held even when controlling for the father’s education level (it’s known that the way fathers speak to their children is influenced by their education). This suggests that the fathers are responding to the child’s developing abilities – repetition of words is important in the very early stages, but becomes less useful as the child’s speaking ability increases. Earlier research has found that parents’ repetition of words peaks when the baby is four to six months old and then declines when the child reaches two years.

The alternative scenario – that fathers increased use of repetition was causing a child’s reduced language ability, rather than responding to it – was discounted by the fact that there was no link between increased repetition when the child was two and the child’s verbal reasoning at three years old.

In many ways, how mothers and fathers speak with their young children is similar. For example, they both use repetition, high pitch and shorter utterances. There are some differences, however, such as greater use of who, what, where, when, why and how questions for fathers. On average, fathers also ask children for clarification more often. Thus fathers have an influence on child vocabulary that is independent of mothers’.

 

Rowe ML, Leech KA & Cabrera N (2017), Going beyond input quantity: wh-questions matter for toddlers’ language and cognitive development, Cognitive Science 41

Schwab JF, Rowe ML, Cabrera N & Lew-Williams (2018), Fathers’ repetition of words is coupled with children’s vocabularies, Journal of Experimental Psychology 166