Talk in the home: What are caregivers doing when they talk most to their children?

Publication Date


Document Type



Child and Adolescent Development


Child Psychology | Language and Literacy Education

Publication Title

Society for Research in Child Development 2019 Biennial Meeting

Conference Location

Baltimore, MD, United States


Despite the decades of research examining the relations between caregiver talk and children’s language outcomes, we are just beginning to uncover the accompanying dimensions of caregiver talk in the home that may support children’s language learning. Caregiver talk in the home occurs across a diverse set of contexts, which can include mealtimes, play, books, dressing/grooming, and transition periods (e.g., Hoff-Ginsberg, 1991; Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2018). While studies have begun to evaluate the talk during these contexts, we know little about another potentially supportive dimension of these interactions: the time in spontaneous language-rich caregiver-child activities. This information is especially critical for children living in lower-SES families in the US who are at-risk for poorer language outcomes. In a sample diverse in SES, this work asks: 1) What kinds of activities do caregivers engage in when they talk most to their children?, 2) Is the amount of time spent in these interactions related to children’s concurrent language proficiencies and SES?
Participants were monolingual English-speaking families with 24-month-old children from low–high SES backgrounds (n=43). LENATM recordings were collected over a typical day. Applying a strengths-based approach, we listened to 10-minute segments with the highest adult word counts (AWC) for each family, filtering for primarily child-directed segments. We continued listening until we extracted the top hour (six 10-minute segments), thus capturing times consisting of the densest child-directed talk. Coders then identified all child-centered (books, play, meals, dressing, conversation) and adult-centered activities (caregivers are engaged in their own activities, but still talk to their child; e.g., chores). To assess children’s language skill, children participated in the “looking-while-listening” (LWL) procedure (Fernald et al., 2008) and vocabulary size was assessed with the MacArthur-Bates CDI.
Preliminary analyses (n=15) revealed that there was substantial variation in time spent talking to children (Figure 1a). In each family’s densest hour, child-directed talk comprised the majority of the densest hour (M=61%). A greater proportion of time was spent in child-centered activities (M=53%), but adult-centered activities also occurred (M=9%). Time in child-centered activities was diverse across activities (Books=19%, Play=14%, Meals=11%, Dressing/Grooming=10%, Conversation=14%). Critically, while overall time spent talking to the target child was associated with children’s language processing speed (r=-.27), this effect was stronger for child-centered activities specifically (r=-.30, Figure 1b). No relations were seen with vocabulary size (rs<.24). Moreover, the time spent during child-centered interactions was significantly related to the variation in SES, as measured by the Hollingshead Index (r=.48).
This study reveals the supporting role of the time spent in child-caregiver activities on children’s language learning. Notably, this densest hour of child-directed talk included both child-centered and adult-centered activities, demonstrating the day-to-day realities of when caregivers talk most to their children. Yet, it may be that more time in child-centered activities specifically is beneficial for children’s language learning. These findings highlight an under-considered dimension to the quality of home learning environments and have the potential to inform our understanding of how time in child-directed talk supports children’s language learning in a diverse sample of low-high SES families.