Sunday, May 24, 2009

Simple truth often is unseen. What is obvious frequently gets ignored, but when lost, the repercussions are mighty.

It recently occurred to me that in raising children to be effective learners, there is one element more critical than any book, computer program, chart or video. It’s free, it’s always available and it’s as plain as the nose on your face. It is — drum roll, please — talking.

Yup, good old conversation. It turns out talking to your children increases their ability to understand language, have good literacy skills, understand story structure, develop vocabulary — and it doesn’t matter which language you speak.

Studies by academic researchers have found that in households where parents talk to their kids — regardless of native language — the kids develop better language skills and academic performance.

In a 13-year Harvard-sponsored study, researchers found that family conversations about past, future or imaginary events help children learn. The “Home-School Study of Language and Literacy Development,” which studied 57 children of diverse backgrounds, found that when parents regularly engage their children in conversations that are “decontextualized” — not tied to the immediate context — it increases early reading success and ongoing learning.

Researchers found this happening when parents told stories about their childhoods or when children recounted events of their day. According to the researchers, such beneficial conversations are ones in which parents and children talk and listen to each other attentively, where the topic is interesting to the child and continues for some time, and in which new vocabulary is naturally introduced.

As one researcher put it, “This means conversation that relies on language to convey information about other times and places.”

It seems funny that researchers have to explain to us the common sense our grandmothers’ generation knew intuitively. For years, information has been conveyed within family units, with elders telling stories, kids asking questions and everyone giving their opinions on a given matter.

Family conversations help kids recognize and learn verbal structures, understand chronological cues, realize causality and gain information. I would venture to say there are other benefits as well. When kids hear, listen and are listened to, they gain emotional intelligence. They learn from the stories: “Here is how my father faced a problem and overcame it” or “That is the consequence of a naughty choice” or “This is how much my grandmother really loved her children” or “This is why my family moved to America.”

These things help a child learn not only the language of a story, but also the subtext of love, honesty, commitment, self-discipline, courage, curiosity and a hundred other invisible motivating elements.

Those family conversations where you discuss, laugh, share stories, make jokes, suggest plans or report events that have happened are the place where a magical mix of elements is being transmitted. As information is conveyed, emotional value is communicated. Kids learn “the world is like this, and I’m important.”

Carrying out regular conversations between the generations, really paying attention and enjoying each person’s contributions — whether done in the car, around the dinner table or during the study hour — is a key foundation for not only learning success, but also life success.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a freelance writer who lives in Maryland.

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