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Promoting Early Language Development: Specific Maternal Responses Are Important

Summary and Comment |
June 11, 2014

Promoting Early Language Development: Specific Maternal Responses Are Important

  1. Martin T. Stein, MD

This finding might enhance pediatric clinicians' counseling of parents to promote language development.

  1. Martin T. Stein, MD

Language development is mediated by both brain maturation and the environment. Parents' prompt and contingent responses to children's initiation of language are essential to the early acquisition of language. To learn what specific parental responses are associated with toddlers' language acquisition, researchers in Australia examined mothers' responsive behaviors in slow language acquirers participating in a larger study, which included a parent-completed 100-word standardized checklist of the child's vocabulary at age 18 months.

Of 1138 toddlers, 251 (22%) scored ≤20th percentile and entered the substudy. At age 24 months, children's language was assessed, and video recordings of mother–child free play were made. These were coded for six maternal responsive behaviors: imitations (repeating the child's vocalizations), interpretations, labels, expansions (repeating and adding to the child's verbalizations), supportive directives, and responsive questions.

Follow-up at age 36 months included 90% of the mother–child dyads. Expansions, imitations, and responsive questions were associated with better receptive and expressive language at ages 24 and 36 months. Expansions were the only maternal behavior that was associated with improvement in language between ages 24 and 36 months. Labels predicted poorer expressive language at 36 months.

Comment

As with many relational studies in child development, the direction of causality can be uncertain. In this study, could some children have facilitated the maternal response rather than the opposite? We have all seen parents who intuitively use expansions, imitations, and responsive questions to encourage their child's language development. But these are not intuitive to all parents. Pediatricians could promote language development in toddlers by modeling expansions, imitations, and responsive questions during office encounters.

  • Disclosures for Martin T. Stein, MD at time of publication Consultant / Advisory board BioBehavioral Diagnostics; University of British Columbia Speaker’s bureau Memorial Health Care System, Hollywood, FL; Kaiser Permanante, So. California; America Academy of Pediatrics Editorial boards Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics

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