The University of Iowa

Parent-Child Conversation: More Than Just Idle Chatter

Research findings suggest sitting down to eat and converse at the dinner table as a family is one way to help develop children's language skills in the home.


Posted on: July 11, 2017

The connections among oral language, vocabulary, and reading comprehension are well established, due in large part to the fact that reading is a language-based skill (Kamhi & Catts, 2013). Extensive research suggests that meaningful talk between family members and children impacts children’s vocabulary development and school success. For example, Hart and Risley (1995) and Hoff (2003) conducted seminal studies that looked at the relationship between parent-child interactions and vocabulary development. They found the more parents interacted with their children in meaningful discussions, the more developed the children’s vocabularies became, and the more prepared children were to be successful in school.

Meaningful parent-child interactions help develop appropriate conversational skills, which support reading success. For example, Snow & Beals (2006) point out that engaging in narrative conversation at the dinner table, such as recounting past events or making future plans, has the potential to expose children to sequencing of events and unfamiliar vocabulary. These talks provide children the opportunity for learning in a natural conversational setting with people that care about each other. Children learn what appropriate topics are, how to stay on topic, how to give enough information to the listener, and the socially acceptable means of communication in this setting.

A recent reanalysis of the data from Hart and Risley’s study suggested that it was not the quantity of words spoken that mattered but the quality of words (Rindermann & Baumeister, 2015). In other words, it is not necessarily how much you talk, but how that talk engages and provides interaction with your child. To expand a child’s vocabulary, your talk needs to include complex vocabulary that extends the meaning of words. In this way, the words become coupled with meaningful conversation that moves a child to more in-depth thinking and processing of ideas and comments.

Finding the time to have a meaningful conversation with your child, despite the age, can reap great rewards. Below are several ways you can increase meaningful talk in your home.

Talk up Instead of Down

To increase the quality of talk in your family, make sure to engage your children in normal conversation using everyday adult language. Talking up instead of down to your children means that you are being selective in your word usage, incorporating phrases or ideas you would want your children to use in public. You do not have to overthink your word choice, but by not speaking down to your children, they will begin to pick up new words and proper syntax.

I have watched as my friends have conversations with their young children as they negotiate different scenarios. For instance, the young son of a friend wanted to convince her that he needed to use the tablet longer. The conversation went back and forth with each giving reasons for why that was or was not an option. The mom would say, “This is not an option right now. We have a multitude of things to accomplish today, and playing on the tablet is not one of them.” Her young son would respond with, “Mom, we have all day to accomplish our things. Right now, we need to focus on the tablet before it runs out of battery.” This is just one example of how the mom did not speak down to the child or simply state “No” or “You are all done,” but took time to explain.

A Four-Letter Word for Vocabulary Development: G-A-M-E

Another way to increase your children’s word bank is to play word games. I learned early on how to make a triple word score with the random letter tiles at my disposal during Scrabble games. My older siblings and parents conversed with me about what letters to use to make the word, how to position them on the board to get the most points, and what the word meant. I also remember playing Boggle and racing to make as many words as possible as the timer ran down, all while laughing and talking with the other players. Today, there are plenty of free word game apps for your electronic devices, including many from PBS that provide fun opportunities for children to play with words and develop their vocabularies.

Outside of a structured word game, you can make a game of introducing new words and then using them in your conversation. Daily word calendars are popular ways for family members to learn and incorporate new words into their vocabularies. Such calendars also provide the opportunity to increase overall talk as you explain the definition and talk about how to infuse it into daily conversations. In a variation of the game, my father would teach us all a new word during long road trips when I was growing up. However, he made the caveat that we must incorporate the new word into our conversations that day as many times as possible. This approach not only increased our word bank, but also gave us a meaningful way to incorporate the new words into our shared vocabulary.

Be Expansive With Your Explanations

Remember to be patient with yourself and your child. Incorporating sophisticated vocabulary into your daily talk does not happen overnight. There will be times, for example, when your children identify every living thing as a puppy or every person as mommy. This is your opportunity to not just correct the child, but also extend his or her understanding by saying, “This is a duck. Ducks quack like this (mimic the sound a duck would make).” Or, while acknowledging that person is not mommy, say who the person is and explain his or her relation to the child: “That is grandma. Grandma is daddy’s mommy.” By providing the correction this way, your children have the opportunity to build a lexicon that identifies different people, places, and things.

The same can be done with a child that hears a word that is unfamiliar but is part of a larger word family, such as vehicle instead of truck. You could say to your child, “That vehicle is a semi truck. Semi trucks, or semis, are large trucks that carry a variety of things from place to place. That vehicle looks like it is carrying food to our grocery store.” This not only provides quantity in terms of more words for your children, but a great deal of quality talk that extends their understanding of the words they hear around them daily.

Make Time for Family Dinner and Table Talk

Kathleen Ferrigno, director of marketing for the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University’s Family Day initiative, states, “The magic that happens over family dinners isn’t the food on the table, but the communication and conversations around it” (The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 2010, para. 4). Years of research suggest that making time to sit down with your family at the dinner table and talk as you eat makes a significant difference in your children’s development. It increases academic performance while lowering risks for substance abuse, depression, and teen pregnancy (The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 2010).

Let’s face it, though. Due to increasingly busy lifestyles, gone are the days of everyone congregating at the table at 5 PM every day for a meal and family conversation. Even if family dinner cannot be a daily experience at your home, making time to sit down as a family and eat whenever possible can have a positive impact on your family.

The Family Dinner Project has many great ideas for making a beneficially conversational family dinner a reality:

  • Schedule family dinner on your calendar so it is a priority for everyone
  • Be flexible and make it work for your family by fixing meals ahead of time
  • Stretch out the meal so everyone can be there for part of it
  • Unplug the technology so no one is interrupted
  • Make it matter by sharing stories and asking open-ended questions of your children

Being ready to ask questions and listen to the answers at the dinner table is a great start to helping develop your children’s language skills and increase their vocabularies.


Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in everyday parenting and intellectual development in young American children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes. 

Hoff, E. (2003). The specificity of environmental influence: Socioeconomic status affects early vocabulary develop via maternal speech. Child Development, 74(5), 1368-1378. doi: 10.1111/1467-8624.00612

Kamhi, A. G., & Catts, H. W. (2013). Language and Reading Disabilities: Pearson New International Edition. Pearson Higher Ed.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. (2010, Sept. 22). 2010 family dinners report finds: Teens who have infrequent family dinners are likelier to expect to use drugs in the future. Retrieved from

Rindermann, H., & Baumeister, A. E. E. (2015). Parents’ SES vs. parental educational behavior and children’s development: A reanalysis of the Hart and Risley study. Learning and Individual Differences, 37, 133-138. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2014.12.005

Snow, C. E., & Beals, D. E. (2006). Mealtime talk that supports literacy development. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 111, 51-66. doi: 10.1002/cd.155