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Tell your kids family stories. It could determine their future.

The number of words a baby hears before age 3 correlates with IQ and success in school. And kids who know their families’ stories are better adjusted than kids who don’t. So the next time your kids ask for a story, don’t conjure up faraway kingdoms. Talk about their grandparents.

Cheryl Dunigan and Wanda Foddrill Ingram greet newborn David Wayne Maners at the Garden Villa nursing home in Bloomington, Ind., earlier this month. The child became the sixth living generation of the family when he was born. Op-ed contributor Jim Sollisch writes: 'It seems to me that the best stories are the ones only we can tell our children.'

Rick Seltzer/The Herald-Times/AP

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My wife, Rique, is a big talker (and an accomplished listener). When we first met, I told her she spoke in paragraphs. I meant it as a compliment. She wasn’t so sure. She believes in the power of the spoken word, in the magic of stories. And she uses a full arsenal of language in her role as a teacher of young children in a therapeutic school. She believes that words are actions, not just symbols. And so when I say, “Let’s stop all this talking and do something about this or that,” she says, “Talking is doing something.”

And so I couldn’t wait to show Rique an article I had run across in The New York Times about the power of talking to babies. Research shows that the number of words a baby hears in its first three years of life correlates with IQ and success in school. The researchers believe that the entire achievement gap between low-income children and their more affluent peers could be eliminated if both groups heard the same number of words in their infancy.

Rique wasn’t surprised. She was a mother who spoke to her babies nonstop. Nothing was too small to escape comment. What came intuitively to Rique, though, isn’t universal to moms. There’s nothing in our genes that encourages us to talk a blue streak to babies who respond by staring up at the light or kicking their feet randomly or nodding off.

The study, conducted by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley of the University of Kansas, recorded and analyzed hundreds of hours of parent-child conversations. Here’s what they found: A child whose family was on federal assistance heard about 600 words an hour; working-class children, about 1,200 words per hour; and children from professional families, a whopping 2,100 words an hour.

In their analysis, after accounting for other factors, they concluded that the greatest determinant of success in school was the number of words a child hears before age 3. (Words heard on television or other media actually had a detrimental effect.) Their research has been validated by several other studies, and now Providence, R.I., with a $5 million grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, will begin coaching lower-income parents in the art of family conversation.


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