Did the pandemic increase speech delays? Some researchers say yes.
According to several recent studies, pandemic-era children are talking less than their predecessors1. As a parent to a pandemic toddler — Lochlan turned six months old in March 2020 — this concerns me deeply.
I’m not an expert in speech pathology, but some data seems to show both a measurable uptick in referrals to speech therapy2 and “a decline in verbal functioning”.1 One starts to wonder if maybe the kids are not okay3 in our current pandemic-response environment. (Researchers in at least one study indicated “factors related to the pandemic had ‘by far the greatest impact on infant and toddler neurodevelopment.'”1 )
It’s easy to feel helpless when the the broader global situation remains so complex and convoluted. But there is an immediately actionable response in our grasp: read books aloud, and talk to our kids!
[Disclosure of Material Connections: I received a complimentary Baby Babble Collection from Timberdoodle, my favorite homeschool company for hands-on learning materials, in exchange for writing and publishing this post. All opinions — and photographs! ;) — are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.]
Something you can do when the world feels out of control: read aloud often, and have conversations with your kids
Researchers have long documented the powerful influence reading aloud has on future academic success, if for no other reason than kids who are exposed to books tend to enter school with a far better grasp of language than kids who aren’t. There are countless other benefits, too, as kids get older:
- increased empathy and compassion,
- expanded knowledge of cultures and geography,
- deepened sense of justice, and
- a strengthened ability to think critically.
But it’s not only reading which makes a difference. Talking — something many take for granted — has a huge impact as well. But it seems the pandemic may have affected this as well. Researchers who track such things do so by counting “conversational turns” (the back and forth of speech and vocalizations between a parent and child). When they analyzed the most recent set of data,1 they discovered that compared to prior data, parents “were initiating fewer conversational turns” with their kids, and the number of conversational turns had decreased overall. Parents talked to their babies less in 2021 than they had in previous years.
In response, researchers suggest talking to your children more. While this advice might seem painfully basic, it’s a good reminder of how powerful the basics are.
It’s profoundly important to
- spend time with your kids,
- talk to them meaningfully face-to-face (even if they can’t reply), and
- read books aloud.
If you’re a homeschooler reading this — and most of you reading this blog are — take heart.
As a homeschooler, you probably already take advantage of your home’s rich literary and auditory environment
In culture where so many advocate for the benefits of delaying formal education, I’ll keep advocating for very early education, early literacy, and early numeracy. (In fact, I firmly believe board books are just as important as Shakespeare — here’s why.)
Homeschoolers tend to do the things the researchers advise (talking and reading) really well, if for no other reason than than the sheer amount of time home educating families spend together in deeply engaging and print-rich environments. After all, most homeschoolers read a lot of books, in an atmosphere which very organically leads to having lots and lots of discussions about those books.
Reading — and talking — matters!
What you can do: encourage your toddler to repeat words as you read aloud
You can read aloud from any book, of course.
You don’t need to run out and purchase specific books in order to read to your kids. Pick up what you have, cuddle your kids, and nurture them through your relationship with them and with the spoken word.
But if you’re like me and are working with a verbal toddler, you might find the early learning resources from Timberdoodle’s Tiny Tots kit really helpful — I know I do!
We’re using the Baby Babble board books from Timberdoodle to encourage Lochlan to verbalize and enunciate specific sounds.
These specially-designed books are designed to boost infant and toddler language development, and Timberdoodle recommends them for ages 0-2. At nearly 3, Lochlan is at the upper end of the range, but we still find the books useful.
(If you're concerned about your child's speech development, please discuss it with your pediatrician, as I have. I’m not a medical professional, and I'm not suggesting reading can be a replacement for speech therapy. I'm also not suggesting complex learning challenges issues can be solved this easily. I'm simply sharing some books I'm using with my son to help him practice speech, hoping it will also be helpful to you.)
Baby Babble books from Timberdoodle are a great hands-on choice to support at-home speech therapy
There are two Baby Babble books so far, both freshly published.
As you can tell from the unusual Bb! and Ck! titles, these board books help toddlers isolate specific sounds. Each book focuses on a single sound — b or hard c — and explicitly asks little listeners to repeat a word containing the target sound. Lochlan really loves this, and shouts out the word when prompted.
The obvious call to say a word means you don’t have to be consciously thinking about speech the whole time you’re reading; you can simply read the book as written. (This is a plus for older siblings reading the book to younger learners.)
Baby Babble books are ideal for wiggly toddlers and young preschoolers
As Lochlan gets older — he’ll be 3 in August — he continues to show a very strong interest in “doing school”. Every day, he spends hours coloring, drawing, “reading”, cutting and pasting, sculpting with play dough, building Legos, singing, and yes — cuddling up while I read aloud.
And he loves these glossy Baby Babble board books! They’re such a good match for the toddler stage. I think it’s because each page of these books really encourages action: speaking, of course, but also sensory interaction like touching soft fabric and opening flaps. This active learning — rather than passive listening — makes the Baby Babble books especially suited for wiggly young learners.
(Another Timberdoodle blogger Laura Noelle, who has a degree in Early Childhood Development, explains how every item in the Tiny Tots kit helps infants and toddlers work on different developmental skills. Check out her post if you want to see what other fantastic learning items Timberdoodle recommends along with Baby Babble!)
Baby Babble books encourage interaction with mirrors, flaps, and sensory fabric
There are such fun elements in the Baby Babble books.
Bb! has a die cut circle on the front cover which peeks through to a kid-safe mirror on the next page, and every single spread afterwards contains some sort of interactive element, like a blue blanket for a brown bear, or a tree branch to lift.
The die cut circle on Ck!’s cover leads to a fuzzy cat, and this book, too, has fun flaps and invitations to interact on each spread. There are wardrobe doors, a sliding grocery cart, and more.
As with most flap-books, these aren’t intended for the littlest learners to explore unsupervised. The pages are sturdy, but the flaps aren’t meant for feral toddlers on their own.
Baby Babble books are best used when parents — or older siblings — read aloud to the child. While they aren’t a good option for independent play, that’s hardly a con, since the whole point here is the basics I talked about earlier:
- spending time with our kids,
- talking to them face-to-face, and
- reading books aloud.
Shop the Baby Babble Collection, or explore all of Timberdoodle’s books and learning toys for ages birth through two.
I really appreciate how Timberdoodle sorts through the myriad products out there and highlights the very best hands-on learning materials for every age range. We’re so glad to be able to include Timberdoodle learning materials into our homeschool day — like the Baby Babble books!
You can also request a Timberdoodle catalog, too, to check out their full range of options for kids of all ages.