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Using 'rare' words at mealtimes can enlarge children's vocabulary

Using 'rare' words at mealtimes can enlarge children's vocabulary

For decades, experts have urged American families to eat meals together as a means of enhancing communication. A Washington University researcher stresses another reason why parents should make family dinner time a priority: Doing so may improve their preschoolers' language skills.

Parents can enhance their children's vocabulary by the way they talk to them during mealtime conversation, said Diane E. Beals, Ed.D., assistant professor of education. As part of a study of low-income children in eastern Massachusetts, Beals and her colleague, Patton O. Tabors of Harvard University, have found that 3- and 4-year-olds whose family members expose them to "rare" words during mealtimes score higher on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT) at age 5 than those who do not receive the same level of exposure. Moreover, the 3- and 4-year-olds in the study who use these words at mealtimes are more likely to have a larger vocabulary by age 5. High scores on the PPVT, a standard vocabulary test, have been linked to children's later abilities to read.

Beals and Tabors define rare words as those that preschoolers are unlikely to know at age 3 or 4. Included in the researchers' extensive list are words ranging from "boxer" and "gymnastics" to "tackle" and "wriggling." "Mealtime is a particularly good source of rare word use. It's a very interesting, juicy place to get stories, explanations, discussions about words," said Beals. "Mealtime conversations tend to be longer. Any topic can come up --what we did last week at the amusement park or the asparagus that we're eating. There's a broad range of topics that can come up at mealtimes that wouldn't necessarily be introduced in other kinds of settings.

"Talk on one subject for an extended period of time gives a child a chance to think. The more you get kids to think, the better it is for them in terms of their linguistic development. That's what using rare words can do. It challenges them."

Earlier this year, Beals, the lead researcher on the mealtime study, and Tabors reported their findings in an article titled "Arboretum, Bureaucratic and Carbohydrates: Preschoolers' Exposure to Rare Vocabulary at Home." The article was published in the First Language journal. This summer, Beals received a faculty research grant from the University for the project.

The mealtime project is part of research Beals conducted as a doctoral candidate and research assistant at Harvard, where she worked on the Home-School Study of Language and Literacy Development, a joint project between Harvard's Graduate School of Education and Clark University in Worcester, Mass. Tabors serves as project director of the Home-School Study.

"One of the major goals of the Home-School Study is to look at different language environments that children find themselves in and determine how those environments support language and literacy development later on," said Beals. The Home-School Study researchers are particularly interested in how successful the children perform in fourth-grade and up, when reading involves more than just sounding out words.

Since 1989, Beals, in frequent collaboration with Tabors, has conducted all the mealtime research for the Home-School Study. The Home-School Study focuses on 85 working-class, low-income families living in eastern Massachusetts. The researchers focused on low-income families because similar studies already have been conducted involving middle-class families. Tape recorders are used to record dinner table conversations.

"We saw quite a range of what these low-income families did," noted Beals. "For instance, in one family, which was a mother and child, the mother was at home all day with her 3-year-old son, and they never sat down for a formal meal. For the mealtime tape, she ended up recording a conversation they had while she was baking corn bread. Some families watched television and discussed the program as it was on. But for the most part, these families did sit down and have a conversation while they were eating."

Beals noted that among child development scholars, a widely held belief is that low-income parents do not talk to their children --or do not talk to them enough. The tapes from the study disprove that assumption, even though some of the children were exposed to fewer rare words than others, she said.

Getting a 'sense of the word'

Beals offers four ways parents can enhance mealtime conversations.

Studies estimate that children learn new words at a startling rate of eight to 28 new words a day, depending upon the child's age and how the study was conducted. "Kids learn such a vast number of words that it would be generally impossible to learn all of those by somebody saying, 'OK, this word means. ...' You can't do it by direct instruction," Beals said. "But kids have this incredible ability to infer things, to figure out how somebody is using a word from the immediate context. You can talk about things in a way that helps them get a sense of the word without directly giving a definition."

Teachable moments

For parents who want to enhance their children's language skills but find it difficult to sit down together at the dinner table, Beals said "there's nothing magical, per se, about mealtime. The magic is that our culture has considered it important for a really long time. The kind of conversations I'm talking about can take place in other settings, such as carpool or on Saturday evenings when parents turn off the television set."

When parents talk to their children, Beals said, they should be persistent and "find those teachable moments, as we call them in education, when you get a child interested and you just keep talking. That's powerful." She warns, however, that parents should not dominate the conversation. Children can learn from direct participation. In order to be effective, parents ideally should plan such situations at least two or three times a week in order to engage in extended conversation with their children. This will help children become familiar with the scenario, Beals said.

Beals views family dinner conversation in a cultural context. "One of the most powerful things that mealtime does is pass on a family's culture to children. That's why we think it's so important. It's where we tell our children what's important about our lives. So I see this as broader than just learning how to talk and learning how to read. Family mealtimes help us learn about ourselves."

-- Carolyn Sanford


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