The Connection Between Kids' Dinnertime Conversation And Reading

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

I’ve always associated food with reading. This is generally because I love to read and eat at the same time, propping my book on the napkin dispenser in diners, flipping pages while forking up spaghetti at the kitchen table, balancing a bowl of ice cream on my chest as I read on the sofa. I’ve already tried to make some of the recipes we’ve found in books with my kids, like duplicating the meals that Frances won’t eat in Bread and Jam for Frances (hard-boiled eggs were a favorite, and more importantly, finally freed us from the tyranny of lunchtime PB&J).

It turns out that meals and reading might be connected in still other ways. Psychologist Anne Fishel writes that children in families who regularly eat dinner together enjoy advantages over their peers in early reading and literacy. She cites research that demonstrates that the conversation over the dinner table boosts children’s vocabulary—even more so than reading does.

Why is this? Well, the storybooks we read to our kids have somewhat limited vocabularies. Natural, organic conversation tends to introduce more advanced vocabulary than the Maisie books will, for example.

Fishel writes: “Rare words, those that go beyond the 3,000 most common ones, are 10 times more likely to show up in dinner conversation than in storybooks. When parents tell a story at the dinner table about their day or recount a funny family anecdote, they usually include many words that a young child hasn’t yet learned but can understand from the context of the story. Children who have rich vocabularies, packed with less common, more sophisticated words, learn to read more easily because they can make sense of the words they are deciphering.”

But that’s not all—children benefit not just from listening to adults talk but also from telling stories themselves; including them in the conversation means they put what they’ve heard into practice. Fishel notes that research shows that kindergarteners who tell stories turn out to be better readers down the line, even as late as seventh grade.

As the mother of a very chatty 5-year-old, I can attest that he loves to tell stories, even stories he’s told many times before. Even stories that, if you really listen carefully, don’t make a ton of sense. His latest rant, er, story, is about a potion that “makes motion,” so if you want to fly, you need to get exactly the right ingredients in the motion potion. (Insert constipation joke here.) I have heard him discuss the potential efficacy of various ingredients, and he’ll pester, er, ask me, over and over again, what my thoughts are on water versus juice for the potion. His storytelling skills are already pretty well exercised, even if you ignore the fact that his audience’s mind often drifts to more coherent topics.

But parents can, in fact, encourage their children to both tell stories and to be (hopefully) better storytellers, according to research on kids, conversation and vocabularies. Fishel instructs parents to:

1. Remind your kids of experiences you’ve had together and discuss them, for example: “Remember when we took a boat ride to see Grandma?”

2. Ask how and why a lot.

3. Encourage them to expand on their stories and repeat back to them what they’ve said.

4. Let them decide what they want to talk about rather than steering the conversation yourself.

It stands to reason that conversation over meals would boost a child’s vocabulary, encourage them to narrate their experiences or make up stories, and generally strengthen the link between spoken and written communication. Fishel draws interesting conclusions based on the research. I’ll definitely be bringing it up at dinner tonight.

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