Beyond Reading: A New Way to Increase a Toddler’s Vocabulary 

By Lauren Hall
March 8, 2024

A recent study is changing the game for parents of young children. Reading has long been hailed as the number one way to increase a toddler and preschooler’s vocabulary and language skills and set the stage for academic success, social interactions, and life in general. But, there’s a new tactic rising to the top of the list: reminiscing through “parent talk.”

What is “parent talk?”

Parent talk is the chit-chat adults often use to engage with little ones. Researchers from Florida Atlantic University, in collaboration with Aarhus University in Denmark, have been following the effects of parent talk in the lives of young children around the world for decades. 

The study compared three language-learning scenarios: reminiscing through the use of parent talk, book sharing (with wordless picture books), and the classic toy play with LEGO bricks. They observed Danish parents and their 3- to 5-year-olds during these activities and analyzed the details of the conversations. The results showed reminiscing is more effective at producing high-quality speech and language from parents. In fact, it scored as high if not slightly higher than reading, particularly when it comes to wordless picture books. They found that both reminiscing and reading books beat toy play in interactive quality.  

This research provides a new suggestion: take the time to walk down memory lane with your toddler and preschooler.

Flip through the mental photo album of past adventures, family history, and shared family moments. Pictures and photo albums can also be used as a tool, but just sharing stories and memories of family time provides a common language and a sense of belonging for the child. This boosts their confidence while simultaneously exposing them to new and more detailed language forms.

One more interesting find in the study: researchers saw no real difference between mom and dad engaging with parent talk. In Denmark, both parents’ engagement tactics and time spent reminiscing with their children produced similar results.

Of course, there is one caveat to this finding.

Reminiscing isn’t a magic wand that erases educational and societal gaps. The study acknowledges that the biggest impact on the quality of reminiscing through parent talk is the activity itself. This fact won’t level the playing field entirely. Parents with a higher education still tend to use more sophisticated language, which needs to be acknowledged.

The biggest takeaway from the study? Whatever parents are doing with their children, the more they talk and engage with them through language, the more robust and well-developed their child’s vocabulary will be. Adding family memories and building connections through family history will boost a child’s confidence and their desire to engage and develop language skills long-term.

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