As the director of a Montessori school, one of the most frequent questions I get from parents is, “What should I be doing at home to help my child academically?”
My answer is always the same: “Talk and read with your child.”
Of course, this never satisfies parents because this seems too simple, and parents – who want to ensure they’re doing right by their child — feel as if they should be doing something more. But it’s often the simple solution that is most effective (and backed by research!).
One of my favorite longitudinal studies was conducted by a Standford linguistic anthropologist, Shirley Brice Heath (1982). She examined the use of bedtime stories and interactions between children and parents in different communities. For the purposes of this post, I will focus on two of them: “Maintown” and “Roadville”.
Heath found that the Maintown children had a greater advantage academically because of how their parents spoke with them. Maintown parents asked their children a lot of “rehearsal questions” (questions where the parent knew the answer). They asked questions that were genuine requests for new information (where the parent didn’t know the answer). And they asked a lot of open-ended questions, where the child was allowed to relate experiences. Additionally, Maintown parents verbalized connections between what the child saw in the real world with what he or she read about in bedtime stories. They also allowed their children to read books as they wished. If the child wanted to skip pages, move ahead, or read from back to front, the parents acquiesced. Finally, when Heath looked at the reading materials of the Maintown parents, she found they had far more critical and educational sources than Roadville parents. In other words, Maintown parents were more interested in gaining new perspectives through reading and didn’t only read books reinforcing their already held beliefs.
The Roadville parents, on the other hand, insisted the children read books from beginning to end, with no skipping ahead. Rather than rehearsal questions, the number one communication parents had “with” their children was “running commentary” involving “rhetorical questions.” Parents would comment on their own behavior or tasks and would ask questions like, “Where are my keys?” without expecting any kind of answer from their children. Essentially, their main communication wasn’t really an interaction.
Roadville Parents did ask rehearsal questions but far fewer than Maintown parents. The other most common communication was a “question directive,” where the parent gave an order in the form of a question. The least type of question Roadville parents asked was that which involved requests for new information. Finally, Roadville parents rarely made connections between what the child saw or experienced in real life and what was read at story-time.
In a nutshell, Maintown parents – simply through speaking and reading with their children – promoted critical thinking in their children. True, they gave them rehearsal questions to practice learning new facts or words, but they also wanted to know their children’s thoughts. They helped their children get into the habit of thinking about connections between different things, which promotes thinking beyond the information given and developing more sophisticated inferences.
Thus, you don’t need to be doing flashcards with your children or showing them how to do math via “tricks.” All you need to do is talk and read with your child.
Laura Flores Shaw, M.S., a former marriage and family therapist, is the Head of School of Oak Knoll Kinderhaus Montessori, an AMI school in Pasadena, California.