By Katherine Ouellette
A vocabulary difference of 30 million words may sound like an insurmountable barrier between children of different socioeconomic backgrounds — but what if the solution to close that gap was as simple as encouraging dialogue between parent and child? A 2018 study co-authored by John Gabrieli, director of the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili) and Dr. Rachel Romeo, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, found that increasing the number of back-and-forth conversations adults had with children ages 4 to 6 resulted in more improvements in brain physiology and language skills than addressing the quantity of words. Funded by a MITili grant, this research proliferated MITili’s mission to transform learning through research and applied practice at the learner level. Since then, Gabrieli and Romeo’s transformative learning intervention for literacy has been connected to new studies that elevate from the learner level to the instruction level. The impact of this foundational work has manifested in new research as varied as evaluating the brain regions of preschool-aged children and creating new technologies to supplement and reinforce the learning provided by teachers and parents.
In a recent paper, Gabrieli and Romeo furthered their research on the “conversational turns” that help children’s language and brain development. With their new family-based intervention, they found that adults who start to include more back-and-forth exchanges in their conversations with 4-to-6 year-old children will improve the child’s language abilities within nine weeks, regardless of socioeconomic status. Conversational turns increase cortical growth in the language and social processing regions of a child’s brain.
These findings indicate that it’s possible for anyone to enhance a child’s language environment early enough to support neurocognitive development before the child arrives at school, which has lasting impacts over the course of the child’s education. “If parents implement this intervention, not only will kids arrive at school with better language skills, but they’ll do better in school overall for years to come,” Gabrieli says. “It’s really exciting that a child’s school readiness is so flexible and dynamic.”
Small changes, meaningful effects
This intervention could be an effective solution to the perceived Thirty Million Word Gap between children of higher- and lower-income families. The landmark 1992 study from the University of Kansas showed that foundational language and interaction experiences with children at age three were closely linked with the child’s performance in vocabulary, language development, and reading comprehension measures by age nine or ten.
“All parents — but especially those facing socioeconomic adversity — are facing enormous structural barriers, which can affect the time and capacity they have to support their children’s development,” says Romeo. Gabrieli and Romeo’s research shows that conversations between parents and children are an effective and no-cost intervention, but the researchers acknowledge that this doesn’t solve the underlying gaps in resources and time. Romeo says, “We hope that this work conveys the positive message that small changes in a child’s experience can have large and meaningful effects.”
Gabrieli and Romeo first published their study on conversational turns as a critical intervention for language development in 2018. “It’s important to not just to talk to your child, but to talk with your child,” said Romeo of that research. When the conversation between adult and child is interactive, rather than the adult talking “at” the child, it provides an opportunity for children to practice their communication skills by encouraging children to think about what the adult is saying and how to respond appropriately. “The brain data show that it really seems to be this interactive dialogue that is more strongly related to neural processing and growth in early childhood.”
Both researchers drew from their expertise in the cognitive sciences. Gabrieli holds the Grover Hermann Professorship at the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, where his lab studies the brain bases of learning, memory, emotion, and motivation and how these develop in children and adolescents via brain imaging and the experimental study of behavior. Romeo was able to draw from her experiences as both a developmental cognitive neuroscientist and a speech-language pathologist.
In addition to this direct intervention between adult and child, Gabrieli and Romeo now hope to follow up their 2021 paper with studying other methods that would incorporate these conversational turns in a child’s life. They imagine utilizing technologies such as simple web or smartphone-based tools, electronic reminders for parents to engage their children in conversation, or computer programs that can converse with children.
Using technology to increase learning engagement
In parallel to Gabrieli and Romeo’s continued research, MITili has already invested in an early childhood language intervention technology. Professor Cynthia Breazeal and her research team from the Personal Robots group at the MIT Media Lab received a 2019 grant from MITili to explore how to implement a “social agent” (e.g. a robot powered by AI). Finding that very few technologies had been designed to support meaningful interactions between adults and children, they designed and tested this social agent, resulting in their first dataset and analysis. The dataset and parent-child relationship behavior modeling papers are currently under review.
Research Scientist Dr. Hae Won Park, Breazeal’s fellow PI on the project, says, “Gabrieli and Romeo’s finding was a great motivation for us to develop a dialogic conversational AI partner that can support parent-child conversational turn-takes.” The authors wanted this research to guide parental involvement in their child’s learning process, which would help boost the motivation and self-efficacy of the adult in their child’s education. The robot was designed to encourage adult-child dialogue through the joint learning activity of storytelling. The AI robot agent will eventually learn to personalize its interaction policy to each child-parent pair, adapting its role and behavior to them to best foster conversational turn-taking. Over time, as the parent and the child improve their conversational turn-takes in quantity and quality, the robot’s role will decrease.
Deeper social-emotional engagement — whether it’s with a teacher, robot, or parent — is key to improving children’s language learning abilities at a formative preschool age. The study of effective integrations of conversational turns needs to continue scaling in order to break down educational barriers for disadvantaged children. Easily-accessible technologies aimed at guiding parents through no-cost interventions for their preschool-aged children will help bridge the learning gap across different socioeconomic families.