Rhythm for Reading - sustainable reading intervention for schools

Sign up for Free Weekly Insights

We respect your email privacy

Conversations and language development in early childhood

14 February 2024

Image credit: Mark Zamora via Unsplash
Image credit: Mark Zamora via Unsplash

The child’s task is to construct the system of meanings that represents his own model of social reality. This process takes place inside his own head; it is a cognitive process. But it takes place in contexts of social interaction, and there is no way it can take place except in these contexts. As well as being a cognitive process, the learning of their mother tongue is also an interactive process. It takes the form of continued exchange of meanings between self and others. The act of meaning is a social act. (Halliday, 1975: 139-140)

Echoing Halliday’s beautiful description of a child’s construction of a model of his social world, the link between talking, the development of vocabulary and reading comprehension was made by Hart and Risley in their book, ‘Meaningful Differences in Everyday Experience of Young American Children’ (1995). In these studies, they focused on word frequency counts and the number of conversational turns between adults and children. It was ten years later when researchers showed the importance of the quality of the interaction between adults and children for the development of language skills, and thus established that educational outcomes for children were built on the foundations of both speaking and listening.

Language development

Decades before Hart and Risley’s landmark study, the Plowden Report had emphasised the importance of spoken language in learning.

Spoken language plays a central role in learning. Parents, in talking to their children help them to find words to express, as much to themselves as to others, their needs, feelings and experiences. Through language children can transform their active, questioning response to the environment in a more precise form and learn to manipulate it more economically and effectively. The complex perceptuo-motor skills of reading and writing are based in their first stages upon speech and the wealth and variety of experience from which effective language develops. (The Plowden Committee, 1967, paragraph 54).

More recently, researchers have measured natural language in the homes of young children using a voice recorder that selected adult words spoken directly to the child, conversational turns - the back and forth of a conversation, the child’s voice and also sounds from televisions and electronic devices.

Whilst the Hart and Risley study showed that the number of words that parents speak to their child, and the number of times adults respond to their child’s voice are of critical importance to language development, a new study was commissioned (Zimmerman et al., 2009) to ask which type of exposure: words, interaction with parents or television, would best predict language development.

The findings showed that exposure to words and interactions with the parents had a significant and positive relationship with language development, whereas exposure to television had a significant and negative association with the development of language skills. When television, words and interactions were analysed together, in order to isolate the most important of these three, it was the interaction with the parents that carried the most influence - the other two variables, word frequency and television were no longer statistically significant.

Parenting styles

In the study, Zimmerman measured Interaction between the child and the parents by ‘turn count’ - in other words: the number of times that the conversation passed between the parent and the child. This metric would probably have been influenced by parenting style. For example, an ‘authoritarian’ parent would be more likely to shut the conversation down using a comment such as, “Because I say so.” Contrastingly, a more ‘authoritative’ parent would be more likely to encourage their child to develop self expression, using language to sustain attention and to develop self-confidence.

In addition to parenting styles, researchers have also considered two important factors which are known to have a positive impact on language development, as well as social and emotional health:

  • maternal responsiveness (Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2001), and
  • a positive social and emotional environment (Knudsen et al., 2006).

Television and electronic devices occupy children far more now in 2024 than they did fifteen years ago when Zimmerman’s study was published. As ‘digital natives’ children are introduced to screens from the age of four months, and hours of exposure to screens continue to accumulate not only in the home, but also in the classroom, once the child starts school.

Screen time

According to recent research (Muppalla, 2023), children who engaged in screen time for more than two hours per day were associated with an increased chance of developing behavioural problems and a poorer vocabulary. Other factors such as a decrease in young people’s engagement with nature and the outdoors may account for increased concerns about mental health and well-being. However, among children of primary school age, concerns about anxiety, depression and aggression have been associated with excessive use of gaming, general screen use and television respectively.

There are various factors to consider, but particularly so if parents use ‘screen time’ as a reward, as there is the additional ‘specialness’ that comes with attaching a high symbolic value to a device even before the child engages with it. The fast-paced and noisy content of certain games, films and TV shows encourage an abrupt level of cognitive and emotional stimulation, which impacts the reward circuitry of the brain (in a similar way to ingesting an addictive substance). The spike in dopamine disrupts the sensitive balance of this brain circuit and can lead to craving behaviours that are associated with addiction. In terms of motivation and attention, the child may withdraw from everyday forms of social engagement with family and friends and their habit may develop into a compulsion, disturbing the delicate balance of the dopamine system even more.

This picture develops further in terms of its complexity if we factor in homework assignments that involve researching a topic on the internet. Children with a gaming habit are likely to struggle to focus on an assignment that does not consummate their ‘need’ to satisfy the gaming compulsion. If siblings share a device at home, one of them may have no choice but to complete the task late into the evening. As screen exposure at night is known to disrupt the wake-sleep cycle, homework assignments that involve using screens may also frustrate parents who are trying to limit their child’s screen time.

Sharing a book

One way to offset the disruptive effects of screens is to put them away and reach for a book. The interaction between a parent and child when sharing a book extends way beyond the narrative - (the telling of the story). In fact, this is an opportunity for the child and parent to get lost in the book together, whether it is fiction or non-fiction. Exploring the illustrations, experiencing the build-up of tension of the structure and the suspense that this evokes offers parents a chance to accompany their child into a new world of ‘firsts’. Perhaps this story will be the first time the parent sees their child:

  • feel empathy for a character,
  • consider different possible directions for the plot,
  • detect the wicked intentions of the villain before these have been revealed in full.

Drilling into the detail of the text, the child might ask their parent about the meanings of words. This could develop into a guessing game or trigger a shared memory that helps a new word to make sense.

When researchers compared two consecutive days: one with and one without book reading, there was a 148 percent increase in the number of parent and child interactions which were specifically related to sharing a book. This concentrated period of interaction with the child is not only very nurturing for their well-being, but it also provides opportunities to share a different pace and style of language.

The language in a book may well be more descriptive and make use of phrases that would not naturally arise in everyday conversation, and would support children in the development of a broad and rich vocabulary. Not only that, but the length and complexity of sentences are more likely to sculpt a child’s attention in a way that everyday spoken language may not (Saracho and Spodek, 2010).

Key points

The Hart and Risley (1995) study showed perhaps surprisingly that infants initiate conversations with their parents more than the parents do. This may happen at the most inconvenient moments for the adults, but if parents are aware that their child needs to interact in order to develop language skills, that would set them up for life: they would probably pay closer attention to these subtle attempts to initiate interaction. The researchers found that the factors most likely to distract the parents included:

  • noise from the television,
  • the parent using a mobile phone,
  • depression and metal health issues.

The type of speech that parents use with their children actually stimulates the middle ear and changes the physiology of the muscles of the child’s head and neck, allowing the face to move in response to the parent’s voice. This beautiful and congruent system of social engagement is hard-wired into humans and all other mammals. It is through interaction between parent and child in the pre-school years that secure attachment bonds and well-adjusted character formation create the foundations for reading well and academic attainment at school.

In the past five years, researchers have found that conversations require active prediction as speech unfolds over time. Listeners anticipate what is coming up in the speaker’s voice as they infer the most likely content and meaning. Listening is very much an active process and involves entraining (matching) rhythmically with the speaker’s voice. This natural aspect of speech is a relatively new area of research in neuroscience (Lakatos et al., 2019) and allows us to understand the role of rhythm within the deeper structures of language and communication.

If this is of interest, click here to discover the impact of a rhythm-based intervention on reading comprehension.

If you have enjoyed this post, keep reading!

Conversations, rhythmic awareness and the attainment gap

In their highly influential study of vocabulary development in the early years, Hart and Risley (1995) showed that parents in professional careers spoke 32 million more words to their children than did parents on welfare, accounting for the vocabulary and language gap at age 3 and the maths gap at age 10 between the children from different home backgrounds.

How we can support mental health challenges of school children?

The waiting lists for local child and adolescent mental health services- ‘CAMHS’ are getting longer and longer. Teachers and parents are left fielding the mental health crisis, while the suffering of afflicted children and adolescents deepens with every day that passes. Young people’s mental health challenges cannot be left to fester, as they affect their identity, educational outcomes, parental income and resilience within the wider community. Here are 10 key strategies that parents and teachers can use to support children and adolescents dealing with distressing symptoms of mental health challenges while they are waiting for professional help.

Narrowing the attainment gap through early reading intervention

The most important thing that I’ve learned in the past two years is not only to expect the unexpected, but to embrace it. I’ve noticed that the sharpest twists and rockiest turns along the way have often prompted some of the most intriguing insights into the integrated processes that contribute to reading and learning. Wearing my SENCO hat, I strongly believe that the principle of early reading intervention (as opposed to waiting to see whether a learning difficulty will ‘resolve itself’ over time), and a proactive approach, can narrow the gaps that undeniably exist when children enter primary school.


Halliday, M. (1975) Learning how to mean: Explorations in the development of language. London: Edward Arnold

Hart, B. and Risley, T.R. (1995) Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children, Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brooks Publishing Co.

Knudsen, E. I. et al., (2006) Economic neurobiological and behavioural perspectives on building America’s future workforce. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103 (27) 10155-10162

Lakatos, P., Gross, J. and Thut, G. (2019) A new unifying account of the roles of neuronal entrainment, Current Biology, 29, R850-R905

Muppalla et al (2023) Effects of excessive screen time on child development: An updated review and strategies on management, Cureus 15 (6) e40608. Doe:10.7759/ cures.40608

The Plowden Committee (1967) Children and their primary schools (The Plowden Report). London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. Available at: http://www.educationendland.org.uk/ plowmen Accessed 8.12.14.

Saracho, O.N. and Spodek, B. (2010) Parents and children engaging in storybook reading, Early Child Development and Care, 180 (10)1379-1389

Tamis-LeMonda et al., (2001) Maternal responsiveness and children’s achievement of language milestones, Child Development 72 (3) 748-767

Zimmerman F. J. et al. (2009) Teaching by listening: The impact of adult child conversations on language development paediatrics, 124 (1) 342-349.

Tags: Rhythm for Reading , vocabulary , language development , conversational turns

Do you have any feedback on this blog post? Email or tweet us.