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Does promoting parents’ contingent talk benefit language development?

Researchers: Dr Danielle Matthews | Dr Jane Herbert

Project overview

Children from disadvantaged families tend to have limited language skills compared to their advantaged peers when they start school. This restricts their access to education and can affect their social well-being. While many factors contribute to language ability, one type of parental communication, contingent talk, has emerged as especially important.

Contingent talk is a style of communication where the parent talks about objects in the infant’s current focus of attention. Infants whose parents frequently use contingent talk go on to have much larger vocabularies as toddlers. Recent research has found that disadvantaged mothers engage in less contingent talk with their infants even though they spend more time in other types of positive interaction. This suggests that increasing parental contingent talk might promote language development, particularly for children at risk due to social disadvantage.

However, before recommending an intervention, we need to establish whether contingent talk is a correlate or a cause of better language outcomes, and whether it is possible to intervene to promote language growth.

This project aims to address these questions by conducting a properly controlled intervention study. The researchers will compare the effects of an intervention to promote contingent talk against a control; they will also measure parent contingent talk and child communication both before and after the intervention. This will allow them to study how the intervention works and whether it works differently for advantaged and disadvantaged families.


  • Dr Danielle Matthews
    University of Sheffield
  • Dr Jane Herbert
    University of Sheffield

  • Director, Education
    Nuffield Foundation

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