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Covid-Era Babies Are ‘Talking’ Less, Signaling Future Reading Challenges


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Natalie Wexler

May 10 2022

We know the pandemic has had a serious negative impact on the academic achievement of school-age children. But recent evidence shows we also need to worry about Covid-era babies and toddlers.

Because of Covid-related disruptions, about a third of early elementary students will likely need intensive support to become proficient readers, according to one study. Now two additional studies suggest that many children born during the pandemic will also be at risk for academic failure. It seems that overburdened parents haven’t been able to engage babies and toddlers in the kind of “conversation” that is crucial for language development—and eventually, for reading.

Both of the recent studies relied on an innovative piece of technology that enables researchers to determine how much verbal interaction young children experience. Developed by a nonprofit called LENA, the “talk pedometer” is a device that sits in the pouch of a vest worn by a child. It records both the child’s own vocalizations—not just words, but babbling, cooing, and the like—and the number of words spoken by any adult who is near the child.

In addition, the device can calculate the number of “conversational turns”—brief episodes of back-and-forth dialogue—in which the child engages. Research has shown that the number of conversational turns affects brain development and is a key predictor of children’s school readiness, social-emotional development, and other life outcomes. Language development drives vocabulary, and vocabulary drives reading readiness, said Dr. Jill Gilkerson, Chief Research and Evaluation Officer at LENA, during a recent webinar sponsored by the organization.



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