The researchers found that children who received more attention and nurturing at home tended to have higher IQs. Children who were more cognitively stimulated performed better on language tasks, and those nurtured more warmly did better on memory tasks.
They found a strong link between nurturing at age four and the size of the hippocampus—a part of the brain associated with memory—but found no correlation between nurturing at age eight and the hippocampus. The results demonstrated just how critically important an emotionally supportive environment is at a very young age.
other studies have shown a link between a baby’s socioeconomic status and the growth of its brain.
the order of sounds is the bedrock upon which words and grammar are built
That the baby brain responds from day one to the sequence in which sounds are arranged suggests that the algorithms for language learning are part of the neural fabric infants are born with. “For a long time we had this linear view. First, babies are learning sounds, then they are understanding words, then many words together,” Gervain says. “But from recent results, we know that almost everything starts to develop from the get-go. Babies are starting to learn grammatical rules from the beginning.”
Researchers have shown that children around two and a half years old are savvy enough to correct grammatical mistakes made by puppets. By the age of three most children seem to master a considerable number of grammatical rules. Their vocabulary burgeons. This flowering of language ability comes about as new connections are made among neurons, so that speech can be processed on multiple levels: sound, meaning, and syntax. Scientists have yet to unveil the precise map followed by the infant brain on the path to linguistic fluency. But what’s clear, in the words of Friederici, is this: “The equipment alone is not enough. You also need input.”
Children in well-off families—where the parents were typically college-educated professionals—heard an average of 2,153 words an hour spoken to them, whereas children in families on welfare heard an average of 616 words. By the age of four this difference translated to a cumulative gap of some 30 million words. Parents in poorer homes tended to make shorter, more perfunctory comments, like “Stop that,” and “Get down,” whereas parents in wealthier homes had extended conversations with their kids about a variety of topics, encouraging them to use their memory and imagination. The kids in low socioeconomic families were being raised on a poor linguistic diet.
The amount of talking parents did with their children made a big difference, the researchers found. The kids who were spoken to more got higher scores on IQ tests at age three. They also performed better in school at ages nine and ten.
But language delivered by television, audio book, Internet, or smartphone—no matter how educational—doesn’t appear to do the job.
the social gating hypothesis: the idea that social experience is a portal to linguistic, cognitive, and emotional development.
“There’s enough plasticity in the brain early in life that allows children to overcome negative experiences.”
Parents learn to emphasize positive reinforcement, expressing praise for specific accomplishments. “We encourage them to shift the focus from scolding your child every time they are doing something wrong to noticing every time they are doing something right,”
They work on focusing on a task in the midst of distractions—for instance, coloring inside the lines of figures while other kids bounce balloons all around. Instructors also teach them to better identify their emotions through a game called Emotional Bingo, in which children match states like “happy” and “sad” with facial expressions. In some later classes the kids learn to practice calming techniques, like taking a deep breath when they are upset.
only one thing consistently predicted how well a child would learn to read. That was the growth of white matter in one specific area of the brain, the left temporoparietal region. The amount of white matter that a child arrived with in kindergarten didn’t make a difference. But the change in volume between kindergarten and third grade did.
What Hoeft’s studies demonstrate is that no matter a kid’s starting point in kindergarten, reading development also depends to a great extent on the next three years—and that those three years can be used to teach something that Hoeft now knows to be tied to overcoming reading difficulty. “That might mean that, in the earliest stages, we need to pay attention to that executive function,” she says. “We need to start not just giving flashcards, letters, and sounds the way we now do, but, especially if we know someone might be a problem reader, look at these other skills, at cognitive control and self-regulation.” Being a better reader, in other words, may ultimately involve instruction around things other than reading.
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