BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
On the cover of her new book, The Gift of Words: How do Children Learn to Talk?, Chicago educator Tammy Steele declares, “Words bring success, words make winners.”
Read on—the beautiful guidebook for parents and children, illustrated by Tammy herself, shows how early vocabulary building spells success in school, at work and in life. Using language acquisition research published in 1995, Tammy tells parents it’s never too young to start the conversation.
Growing up in Little Rock in a family of six children, Tammy always felt her mother was fascinated by what she and her siblings were trying to say, allowing her to develop the canny ability to spark conversations with enthusiasm, wisdom, and what-ifs—making her one of our city’s education cheerleaders.
“Parents can give a child the gift of words starting at birth. It doesn’t take more time—it takes more words. Recent brain research shows that infants’ brains have cells ready to learn language. They need to hear and say millions of words before they are three years old. Not different words, just words parents already say to them each day.”
We asked Tammy, recently retired from a career working with day care providers in the city of Chicago and one of our city’s advocates for excellence in education, how she decided to write The Gift of Words?
“I read the research by Betty Hart and Todd Risley from 1995 reporting on their study of mothers and children age nine months to three years. The longitudinal study made total sense. The researchers confirmed that children’s caretakers (usually mothers) played an essential role in their language and vocabulary acquisition. Previous research had not focused on parent/child interactions. Hart’s and Risley’s surprise finding was that there was a 30 million word difference between the environments of the lowest and highest scores of participating children. The words themselves can be simple ones—’dog,’ ‘go,’ and the like.
“In my book I recommend that kids play with something simple like stickers. Parent and child can identify the stickers, describing the colors, the shapes, and where you put them in the book. Parents who talk more with their children don’t spend more time, they just talk more when they are together. Cooking, clean up, and bedtime stories are other excellent opportunities for magical word building.”
We caught up with her earlier this week at her Michigan house where Tammy’s three grandchildren, ages six, four, and two, were napping, and the family was preparing for the Fourth of July. Daughter Meg Steele is Head of Woodlands Academy in Lake Forest. Tammy’s husband, Eric Steele, is one of Chicago’s most favorite creators of stunning tabletop and outdoor sculpture in the parks and along the Lake. Tammy, who attended the degree program for two years at the School of the Art Institute, beautifully illustrated the book in tempera, collage materials, and crayon. She holds a masters degree in education from National Louis University.
She explains that words delivered by television and videos do not have the strong impact that parents do. She also differentiates between teaching a child to understand vocabulary and quizzing kids.
“Asking, ‘What color is that?’ is different than taking a special effort with words, naming all the blue objects in a room. Quizzing doesn’t increase vocabulary. Schools are better at teaching children to use phonics to decode the words than they are at teaching children to understand what they decoded. The best student-teacher relationship is one-to-one because the teacher can address a child’s specific interests. A mother can give her child the specific words that explain what a child is doing or wants to do.
“My son, who subsequently went on to MIT to study engineering, took his time with speaking. As a three-year-old, he taught me that children might be saying something meaningful, but no one understands. They are probably repeating the same syllables while adults around them guess what they mean. Yesterday, my grandson repeatedly said, “Ya wacker” and danced around—until I guessed that he wanted me to play the Nutcracker recording. He knew what he wanted to say. I knew how to pronounce it.”
We wondered if Tammy’s research showed that people shouldn’t talk “baby talk” to children: “It is definitely okay to talk a little baby talk—children love those high-pitched sounds.”
Tammy recommends that parent and child sit down with her book and look at maybe one page a day, or the same conversation starter every day for a week, not going straight through it. She advises using “loving words” at night to welcome everyone home, “words that help soothe the tiredness of a long day.”
“Let your children talk about the pictures, take turns, and make up stories,” she shares. “It doesn’t take more time. It takes more words. It could make a 30 million-word difference.”