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Language Nutrition for All

August 11, 2014

Are you talking with your baby?

Just as children require warmth, food, and protection, they also require "language nutrition” to meet their developmental potential. Language-rich adult-child interactions are as critical to a baby’s and young child's brain development as healthy food is to physical growth. And a solid foundation of language nutrition can play a critical role in developing a child’s social and emotional capacity.

The quality and quantity of communication between caregivers and children—beginning at birth—has a direct impact on a child’s language and literacy development. The impact of these adult-child interactions on the developing infant and toddler is unparalleled by any other stage of development. In the first few years of life, babies’ brains are forming the neural connections for language that will shape their capacity to learn.

Early exposure to language has a strong effect on vocabulary development by age 3, which is a key predictor of reading comprehension by the end of third grade. The best predictor of a baby’s later academic accomplishments is the number of words spoken to the baby and the amount of time spent in active engagement and communication.

Unfortunately, millions of underprivileged children and children with congenital liabilities exhibit delays in picking up language, learning, and reading. Those delays can be traced to a disruption in the relationship between infants and their surrounding social environment. Without critical language nutrition, children’s capacity to learn to read by third grade is greatly diminished, which hinders their ability to read to learn in later grades and throughout life.

The good news is that all parents have the potential to be their child's first and best teacher. Studies have found the number of words parents speak to their babies—not the parents’ social class, income, or ethnicity—is what best predicts a child’s academic accomplishments.

Before all babies can receive that vital language nutrition, the adults who interact with infants and toddlers need to transform their thinking and behavior. When parents, caregivers, teachers, and health providers receive training on how to use evidence-based strategies, they gain the knowledge and skills necessary to improve every child’s outcomes.

Talk With Me Baby
Talk With Me Baby, a large-scale public-health initiative already underway in 13 counties in Georgia, has the potential to leverage dramatic results for all children. The initiative is providing language nutrition that will help children reach the milestone of “reading to learn” by the time they leave third grade—including those born into families of generational poverty, have a sensory disability, are English learners, have a genetic predisposition to developmental delays, or have a chronic developmental delay.

This highly collaborative, novel concept sprung from conversations on improving health and education outcomes for children between Georgia Pathway to Language and Literacy Coalition for Children who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing; the Georgia Coalition for English Learners; Get Georgia Reading—the Georgia Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, which launches this spring; Emory University Department of Pediatrics; Emory Nell Hodgson Woodruff Department of Nursing; Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta; Georgia Tech; Marcus Autism Center; Atlanta Speech School; Georgia Department of Education; and the Georgia Department of Public Health.

The goal of Talk With Me Baby is to increase early exposure to language as a strategy to ensure better outcomes for children including higher reading proficiency by the end of third grade.

For more information, contact aweldon@atlantacivicsite.org

This story first appeared on the Georgia Family Connection Partnership's blog

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