Covid-Era Babies Are "Talking" Less, Signaling Future Reading Challenges
Schools will need to adopt a new approach to literacy instruction to get students back on track.
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.
LENA itself conducted one of the studies, which analyzed recordings of over 600 babies aged zero to nine months. Babies born during the pandemic, the study found, are vocalizing less and experiencing fewer conversational turns.
Independently, another study from Brown University’s Advanced Baby Imaging Lab found similar results. The lab has been tracking over 1700 families with young children since 2010. One year into the pandemic, researchers found that children’s average cognitive performance was the lowest it had been since the study began. A separate analysis of infants found a dramatic decline in verbal functioning in 2021, apparently because adults were initiating fewer conversational turns.
The reasons for the decline in vocalizations and conversational turns aren’t entirely clear from the data, but the Brown study concluded that factors related to the pandemic had “by far the greatest impact on infant and toddler neurodevelopment.” It seems likely that a combination of stressed caregivers and social isolation is to blame. (Neither study addressed the question of whether masks might interfere with language development, since both were conducted in homes rather than daycare or preschool settings.)
During the webinar, Dr. Sean Deoni—who led the Brown study—said the findings were worrisome. Children are resilient, but the first thousand days of their lives are crucial to their later development. And the older children get, the harder it is to compensate for the effects of early deficits, he said.
But Deoni and Gilkerson emphasized that there is much that parents can do to address the situation. In addition to monitoring children’s verbal development, LENA provides classes for parents that teach strategies to increase interactive talk. A separate study found that the program boosted infant vocalizations by 8% and conversational turns by 30%.
Parents who want to ensure their children are ready for school can also turn to a book called Reading for Our Lives by Maya Payne Smart, to be published in July 2022. It provides concrete advice on developing children’s language and literacy abilities that go well beyond the usual injunctions to read books aloud. (Smart and I share a publisher, and I was given access to an advance copy.)
But the children most at risk come from families who are often hard to reach and who lack time, higher education, and other resources. While the decline in verbal interaction has affected all socioeconomic groups, both studies show that the drop has been most dramatic among the bottom 25%. In the LENA study, children in that group went from the 45th percentile to the 25th in the number of their conversational turns. To compensate for the effects of the pandemic, those children will likely need help not just from their families but also from their schools.
The researchers were loath to place another burden on schools that are “already stretched to the limit,” as Deoni put it during the webinar. And the most common prescription to address Covid-related learning loss has been tutoring. But there are changes schools can make to curriculum and instruction that can actually alleviate the burdens on teachers, after a period of adjustment, and can reduce the need for tutoring by providing an entire class with the kind of instruction that works in the first instance.
One basic change that is gathering steam across the country is to switch from a haphazard approach to instruction in phonics and other foundational reading skills to one that is systematic. Not all children need systematic phonics in order to learn to decipher words fluently, but many and perhaps most do—especially those at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. And phonics can be fun and helpful even for those who might eventually learn to read without it.
But for children to become truly literate, they need exposure to a curriculum that will also systematically build academic knowledge and vocabulary beginning in kindergarten, largely through read-alouds and discussion. Conversational turns are important in early language development, but written language uses sophisticated vocabulary and syntax that are rarely found in conversation. To prepare young children to understand the kind of text they’ll encounter in later years, their “conversational turns” need to start including more elevated language.
Unfortunately, the standard approach to reading instruction has long focused on comprehension “skills and strategies,” such as “finding the main idea” or “comparing and contrasting,” to be practiced on simple texts on random topics. The theory has been that children need to spend their elementary years acquiring those skills rather than any substantive knowledge, on the assumption that later on they’ll be able to use the skills to glean knowledge from their reading.
But, as cognitive scientists have long known, when it comes to comprehension, substantive knowledge is far more important than “skills.” If students lack knowledge of the topic or of academic vocabulary in general, no amount of practice in “finding the main idea” will enable them to understand complex text.
Before the pandemic, a number of schools and districts were making the switch to this new kind of knowledge-building literacy curriculum. There are now perhaps half a dozen such curricula, all of which are best implemented with training for teachers that is grounded in their specifics. Even during the challenges of remote learning, some educators were bold enough to undertake the shift.
While it’s true that schools and teachers have been stretched thin as a result of the pandemic, it would be nothing less than a tragedy if their added burdens were used as a reason to stick with an approach to reading instruction that has been failing students for far too long. Especially in light of this new evidence that the negative impact of Covid is likely to be with us for years to come, we have no time to waste in adopting materials and methods that can work for all students, including the most vulnerable.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.