The Role Of Parents In The Vocabulary Spurt And Early Grammar

What role does parents' responsiveness play in children's language development during the period of the vocabulary spurt and beyond? We speculated that verbal responsiveness would be associated with more rapid growth in children's productive language over the second year; would predict the diversity of meanings children use to express their verbal constructions; and would be associated with the developmental timing of both the vocabulary spurt and combinatorial speech (i.e., combining words into sentences). Empirical support has been obtained for each of these predictions.

In one study, we assessed the role of maternal responsiveness in two contexts, play and mealtime, for children's growing vocabularies across the second year (i.e., when toddlers were 13 and 20 months; Bornstein, Tamis-LeMonda, & Haynes, 1999). Here the focus was on changes to mothers' responsiveness over time in relation to changes to children's observed language production. In this investigation, measures of mothers' responsiveness and children's language at both ages and in both contexts derived from transcripts of their observed interactions.

Mothers who grew in their verbal responsiveness over time had children who demonstrated significant gains in their own vocabularies over the 7-month period, both in play as well as at mealtimes. These analyses covaried children's own 13-month contributions to language outcomes, which were also significant. Perhaps most notable was the finding that the absolute size of mothers' observed productive vocabulary did not predict children's language above verbal responsiveness, nor did children's language growth predict later maternal productive vocabulary size. In contrast, mothers' verbal responsiveness mattered above the amount of mothers' language.

In a second cohort, predictive associations between verbal responsiveness and the timing of the milestones 50 words in production and combinatorial speech were examined (Tamis-LeMonda et al., 1998), based on our biweekly interviews with mothers. Word counts on children's productive vocabularies offered data on when children reached 50 words in language production. During these same telephone surveys, each mother was asked whether her child was yet combining words into simple sentences, in order to document the date of this later milestone. Probing for combinatorial speech was highly specific and the crediting of achievement was conservative. For example, if a mother stated that her child was "putting two or more words together" she was asked to provide specific examples of the child's construction as well as information about the situation(s) in which her child expressed the phrase. The child was only credited with "combinatorial speech" if he or she (1) linked two or more words in a single phrase without pause; (2) each of the words in the phrase could be classified as independent words in the child's vocabulary; and (3) each of the words in the phrase could be classified into distinct categories of speech (e.g., actor, action, object of action, patient, possession; for additional details, see Tamis-LeMonda & Bornstein, 1994, Tamis-LeMonda et al., 1998).

For each outcome, the "date" when the child achieved each of the milestones was noted as the date of the telephone call, providing a window of error within 2 weeks. Again, using Events History Analyses, mothers' verbal responsiveness to their 13-month-olds (at the start of language production) was examined as a predictor of when in development children achieved the two milestones. Findings revealed that verbal responsiveness predicted the timing of the vocabulary spurt and combinatorial speech, and did so above the timing of children's first words in production, the timing of their achievement of 50 words in receptive language, and mothers' responsiveness at 9 months. Similarly, responsiveness at 13 months contributed unique variance to the timing of combinatorial speech over and above the timing of first words in production, children's earlier receptive language, and responsiveness at 9 months.

Moreover, specific forms of responsiveness related to specific targets of child behavior. In particular, children of mothers who responded contingently to children's vocalizations and play behaviors achieved 50 words in expressive language and engaged in combinatorial speech sooner than children of less responsive mothers. In addition, specific maternal responses at specific developmental periods facilitated the achievement of specific language milestones. For instance, mothers' affirmations and descriptions at 9 months, but not at 13 months, predicted children's language milestones. And, mothers' responses with vocal imitations and expansions at 13 months, but not at 9 months, influenced the timing of children's production of 50 words and combinatorial speech (Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2001).

To provide an example of these effects, Figures 4.11 and 4.12 illustrate the role of mothers' responsiveness in children's language spurt, as defined by 50 words in production. Specifically, Figure 4.11 contrasts the effects of high levels of maternal responsiveness to children's play and vocalizations at 13 months (upper 10th percentile) with low levels of maternal responsiveness to children's play and vocalizations at 13 months (lowest 10th percentile). Figure 4.12 contrasts the effects of high levels of maternal responding with imitations to children at 13 months (upper 10th percentile) with estimated functions for low levels of maternal responding with imitations at this age (lowest 10th percentile). When the language milestones of children at the extremes of these various forms of responsiveness were modeled (i.e., the top and bottom 10th percentiles), approximately half of all children whose mothers demonstrated high levels of responsiveness (either in terms of what they responded to—Figure 4.11—or how they responded—Figure 4.12) at 13 months were estimated to achieve 50 words in language production by 15 months of age. In contrast, only half of the children of low responsive mothers were estimated to achieve 50 words in production by 21 months of age, the end of the study. Not shown are the very similar patterns for the timing of combinatorial speech. Specifically, one-third

Vocabulary Spurt

- High Resp

Age in Months

Figure 4.11 Modeling cumulative probability functions for the timing of 50 words in children's productive language: Estimated function for high levels of maternal responsiveness to children's play and vocalizations at 13 months (upper 10th percentile) and for low levels of maternal responsiveness to children's play and vocalization at 13 months (lowest 10th percentile).

Age in Months

- High Resp

Figure 4.11 Modeling cumulative probability functions for the timing of 50 words in children's productive language: Estimated function for high levels of maternal responsiveness to children's play and vocalizations at 13 months (upper 10th percentile) and for low levels of maternal responsiveness to children's play and vocalization at 13 months (lowest 10th percentile).

of all children with highly responsive mothers were estimated to engage in combinatorial speech by 15 months, as compared to 21 months of age for children of low responsive mothers.

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