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How Do Babies Learn to Talk? Is There a Point to Library Story Times?

Friday, January 2, 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Melanie Blau McDonald
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Image of toddler and parentIn an article entitled “Quality of Words, Not Quantity, Is Crucial to Language Skills, Study Finds” (NYT October 17, 2014 by Douglas Quenqua) it turns out that there is a lot of supportive research to describe how babies learn to talk. There is the famous study which found that there is a 30-million-word gap by age 3 between children of professional families and those on welfare.* As the authors discovered, the word gap cannot be addressed by a one-shot intervention or even a weekly intervention. So why bother with story times? Sure, these programs bring families into the library. But is that all they do? Couldn’t we accomplish more by simply offering free Danish/donuts and French roast coffee and calling it a day? Why go through all of the effort of training staff or of having early literacy experts on staff? That seems like a lot of work and expense.

Let’s look at what the research says more recently. In “How babies talk: six principles of early language development”** by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta M. Golinkoff, the authors summarize current research into six principles they feel should inform both “…classrooms and living rooms.”

  • Principle 1: Children learn the words that they hear most
  • Principle 2: Interactive and responsive rather than passive contexts favor language learning: Social interaction matters.
  • Principle 3: Children learn words for things and events that interest them.
  • Principle 4: Children learn words best in meaningful contexts.
  • Principle 5: Vocabulary learning and grammatical development are reciprocal.
  • Principle 6: Keep it positive.

I would posit that the only benefit of library story times is the degree to which the reader/staff person/librarian follows, demonstrates and teaches these Principles to parents. I’ve seen it done. I've even seen a program training library staff to teach the parents during the story time. What about your story time? Is it led by a “shusher?” Is there interaction between the reader and the children? Is it a positive experience? And are the parents given to understand that these interactions, conversations, positive responses to inquiries all need to continue at home? Are they encouraged to keep the conversation going? If not, if the reader is the expert and everyone else treated as if they were passively entertained or unimportant to the outcome, then that story time is a waste of time, at least for the parents and children. Let’s make sure we're truly helping families and not just going through the motions.


*Hart, Betty and Todd R. Risley, Meaningful Differences in Everyday Experiences of Young American Children, Brookes, 1995. For a useful excerpt: Accessed December 30, 2014.

**Hirsh-Pasek, Kathy and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, “How babies talk: Six principles of early language development.” In Odom, S.,Pungello, E. & Gardner-Neblett, N. (2012) Re-visioning the beginning: Developmental and Health Science Contributions to Infant/Toddler Programs for Children and Families Living in Poverty. New York, Guilford Press, 77-101 Accessed: December 30, 2014.

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