The Role Of Parents In Early Word Production

To what extent is children's early production influenced by parents' verbal responsiveness? We have used two approaches to study the role of parents' verbal responsiveness at the early stages of word production. In the first approach, parents' responsiveness was examined in relation to the size of infants' productive vocabularies at the start of the second year (i.e., 13 months), the point in development when most children are expressing their first words. In the second, parents' responsiveness was examined in relation to the developmental timing of specific language milestones in early productive language.

In several investigations, mothers' responsiveness related to children's productive vocabulary sizes concurrently and predictively. For example, in one study, mothers who responded more to their 5-month-old infants had babies who displayed larger flexible vocabularies at 13 months (Bornstein & Tamis-LeMonda, 1989). In other investigations, mothers' responsiveness to their 13-month-old toddlers' exploratory and communicative initiatives was concurrently related to children's productive vocabulary sizes (Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2001).

Perhaps more revealing than the predictive validity of responsiveness for vocabulary size at the start of the second year is the finding that mothers' responsiveness affects the timing of productive milestones in early language. In one study, we asked whether mothers' responsiveness would relate to the developmental onset of infants' first imitations and first words—that is, when in development children first imitated a word and when in development children first used words spontaneously and flexibly.

To address this question, we utilized the statistical technique of Events History Analysis (also referred to as Survival Analysis; Willett & Singer, 1991, 1993) which is suited to modeling whether and by how much specific predictors (here responsiveness) affect the timing of target events (here imitations and first words). Time is considered along its continuum, and the conditional as well as cumulative probabilities of an event occurring can be modeled and plotted across successive ages. As a hypothetical example, if a group of children were assessed on their ability to "walk" from 6 through 18 months, the cumulative probability of children walking independently might be .00 at 6 months (as no children have yet achieved the milestone), .10 by 9 months, .15 at 10 months, .50 at 12 months, and so forth, until all children have achieved the milestone of walking, at which point the cumulative probability reaches 1.00. The median lifetime represents the point when half of the population experiences the target event (i.e., when the cumulative probability reaches .50).

We assessed the contributions of maternal verbal responsiveness at 9 months (before children had begun producing conventional words) to the subsequent onset of children's first imitations and first words by comparing baseline conditional and cumulative probability functions (i.e., those in the absence of predictors) with "fitted" functions (i.e., those that included predictors) in nested, hierarchical chi-square analyses (Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2001). As anticipated, responsiveness was a robust predictor of the two milestones, as indicated by highly significant changes to chi-square statistics when responsiveness was added to models. To illustrate, when the language development of children at extremes of responsiveness were modeled (i.e., the top and bottom 10th percentiles), nearly all the children whose mothers demonstrated high levels of responding with descriptions at 9 months were estimated to imitate words by 13 months. In contrast, only 60% of the children with low responsive mothers were estimated to imitate words at 13 months (see Figure 4.1). Similarly, nearly all the children whose mothers displayed high levels of maternal responding with affirmations, descriptions, and play prompts at 9 months were estimated to produce their first words by 13 months, whereas only 20% of the children with low responsive mothers produced their first words at this age (see Figure 4.2).

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