Live chat with language development researchers Jamie and Claire

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In the latest chat we had the pleasure to talk to (or I should say, flood with questions) Jamie and Claire, two developmental psychologists from the University of Liverpool. They are both currently studying children’s language development and and how this can be promoted through family-based shared reading. We know that reading with your child helps them learn to talk, and it helps them do well in school, but we don’t know why, so this is what they’re trying to find out.

Q: How can you separate the effect of reading to kids from the fact that people who read to their children may be different to people who don’t read to their children?
Claire: That’s a great question and is quite tricky to pull apart. As part of our project we will be looking at this, as previous research has suggested that reading interventions work better with some groups of people than others. The bottom line though is that reading to your children does make a difference regardless of who you are but some parents just find it easier than others.
@Claire so how can you tell that the reading itself definitely makes a difference? Do you do a randomised control trial or something?
Claire: Yes there are plenty or randomised control trials out there which suggest it’s the reading that makes the difference. However ‘reading’ isn’t just about the text. It’s about sharing a book and having a conversation with your child which seems to make the difference. By having a book in front of you and your child, what you’re talking about is clearer so it’s easier for the child to learn new words and to contribute to the conversation, all of which help language development.


Q: Following on from the previous question, I’d love to know a bit more about how reading and general parental engagement and communication help language learning. Do children whose parents read with them learn to read earlier, for example? Does it help with overcoming things like dyslexia?
Jamie: we know that children who are read to regularly tend to learn language faster, enter school with a larger vocabulary and become more successful readers in school. Therefore anything you can do to improve a child’s language skills before entering school would give them better chances in school, a better chance of going to University and it is even claimed better economic success in adulthood. As for whether reading could help to overcome dyslexia, the answer is “possibly”. I don’t know very much about dyslexia as it’s not an area I’ve ever looked into. However, one of my lecturers at Sheffield University, Prof. Rod Nicholson, researches “positive dyslexia”, where he focuses on how the strengths of dyslexia can overcome problems.


Q: My girl is 7 months old, so too little to really follow a story. I read very simple books with her but I find them infuriating and boring so I also incorporate books for older children. Is it the reading that matters more than what you read or should we stick to baby books?
Jamie: I would say that it doesn’t matter what you read and you should read what suits you and your baby. Babies love to interact so whether it is a baby book, a road sign, or a cereal box, you’ll still be exposing your baby to words they may not have heard before


Q: Could you “read” a picture book? I have a book from my childhood (early 1980s) which is basically a picture book and it tells you to talk about the pictures or make up stories. I think it was a new way to do things – or just lazy of the author?
Jamie: that sounds like a great book! Wordless picture books are great because they allow you to really follow what your child is interested in on the page and let them lead the conversation. By asking them lots of questions you’ll be giving them the opportunity to practice their language skills and try out any new words they have learnt.


Q: Does it matter if it is the parent/primary caregiver who reads to the child, or would grandparents, aunties, etc work just as well?
Jamie: Good question – I don’t think it really matters who reads to the child, no. Being read to by lots of different people not only exposes the child to lots of different reading styles but to different voices, tones, pitches, accents etc.
Claire: If you’re interested in ‘interactive’ book reading there’s a particular reading style called ‘dialogic reading’ which encourages the parent to let the child take the lead and has been shown to help children’s language development. For more information you could have a look here – «link»


Q: When reading to a toddler i.e. one that cannot read at all, is it helpful to point to the words as you’re reading? Do they make the association between your words and the words on the page or do they just think you are telling a story off the top of your head and there just happen to be some pictures and squiggles in front of them?
Claire: Great question – There is some evidence to suggest that pointing to the text and even individual letters can help children learn print skills. I’m no expert in how children learn to read but print skills such as recognising letters are important precursors to learning to read and so pointing to words and letters seems like a good idea to me.


Q: I’d like to know if your research has found any differences between how children pick up vocabulary through being read to, versus another medium, like watching TV. My daughter picks up words through both (so we watch a lot of very age-appropriate TV here…)Jamie: There are lots of studies that have looked at this and you’re right, children can learn through watching TV. However, it’s easier for a child to learn words through a conversation. So perhaps watching television with your child and talking about it would be useful. Our colleague Dr. Gemma Taylor has just written a brilliant article about this! «link»


Q: Is there an ideal approach to teaching a child to read? I learned early, but my stepdaughter was more on the late side and needed a lot of tutoring in phonics. Because she was on the late side with reading development (according to UK school standards anyway…), her confidence with books is still shaky. So, I’m wondering if there’s any “golden” approach to teaching a child to read.
Claire: How children learn to read isn’t really something I know much about. However if a child is struggling to read they may begin to dislike reading and no longer find pleasure in it. I can imagine all the effort that goes into decoding the words when you’re learning to read distracts from enjoying the story. So continuing to read to a child who is now learning to read themselves may help the child to continue to like reading and this may motivate them while they’re learning.


Q: Is it better to read the same few books again and again or new books all the time? Or somewhere in the middle?
Jamie: Familiar books are great because they encourage children to learn words, having heard these words lots of times. Also children will always have their favourites that they will want to read (mine was the Hungry Caterpillar!). Having said that, varying the books will expose them to a greater variety of words. So I would say somewhere in the middle!
Claire : There’s also research to suggest that reading doesn’t have to limited to traditional story books, electronic books, comics, children’s magazines, children’s newspapers can all help. Just as adults don’t always want to read a challenging novel, children also like to read a variety of print


Q: I would be interested to know what you make of my baby, on meeting a book for the first time at 3 months, being completely enthralled by it, talking to it like he does to no other toy, fascinated at the turning pages and so on. Is it just a new toy, or is there something special about this book? It was the same place and time as I’ve always read to his big brother.
Jamie: That’s brilliant to hear- there could be a number of reasons why your baby loves this book. I’d say it’s likely that they will have seen you read to their big brother and perhaps this has encouraged them to be enthralled by it! Also children’s books often contain novel words and pictures that children may not be used to seeing or hearing so this may also explain why they love the book so much


Q: I have a 2 year old daughter and I read books recommended for her age during the day (wibbly pig, bear hunt, night garden etc), but at bed time I read a proper story. At the moment it’s the Narnia Chronicles, but my Mum reckons it’s too grown up and scary and that I shouldn’t be exposing her to the themes in this. Is she right? Do I need to be more careful? Can I hurt her mentally?
Claire: It sounds like you’re giving her a lovely mix of books. I would have thought if she was finding the books scary or distressing she would let you know. I often think children’s books which talk about ‘losing mummy’ are probably more scary to a 2 year old than a story such as Narnia! She may become more sensitive as she gets older and begins to understand the ‘grown up’ books more but I think by following her lead on what books she likes she’ll be fine.


All: thanks a lot for coming and answering all our questions, it’s been really interesting!
Thanks for inviting us – you’ve given me lots to think about!
Thanks for having us it’s been great!



One thought on “Live chat with language development researchers Jamie and Claire

  1. […] of some of the live chats we’ve had in the past about language development in babies, like this one on family-based shared reading, or this one on language development, or this on babies’ early […]


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