I just had a fascinating conversation with a teacher who had just attended a Professional Development day at which they heard a professor from the University of Calgary talking about language development in children. I’ve long been devoted to spreading the word about the importance of reading and conversing with kids to help enrich their language skills. I know that iPads and other electronic babysitters can be a barrier to verbal interaction but in addition this teacher presented me with some rather stunning facts about something known in language circles as ‘The Nanny Effect’.
Here are the bare statistics. Researchers into early language development have long ago established the average size of vocabulary expected of children at various age benchmarks. For children from the following socio-economic groups, their vocabulary at age 3 would be -
500 Words – Lowest groups (non high-school graduates, folks on welfare, etc)
700 Words – Blue-collar workers and lower middle-classes
1100 Words – Professionals
There are undoubtedly more accurate ways to describe those groups, but that was my friend’s general memory of how the groups subdivided.
But here’s the big shocker. For children of professional, high-achieving parents who both worked and whose children were cared for by a nanny with English as a second language, their 3-year-old’s vocabulary was on average 500 words – the same as the lowest socio-economic group. That totally took me aback. This isn’t the nanny’s fault as she’s functioning in a second language, and it’s hard to blame hard-working parents who have ensured there’s a loving and responsible nanny to provide care for their children – but it does provide a wake-up call.
I share this information because it highlights the vital importance for all of us of spending a dedicated portion of time every day with your children either reading with them or having conversations (around the dining table, in the car – whatever works). There’s such a danger that in busy families as we ferry our kids around to sports and activities that we forget to set aside time for reading and conversation. Good books provide the framework for enriching a child’s language and opening opportunities for discussion, and the Nanny Effect provided me a renewed sense of mission and another piece of ammunition in my campaign to spread the word about the vital importance of books in a child’s life.