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Susanna Wesley, the mother of John and Charles Wesley – the founders of the Methodist movement, had 19 children (some of whom died in infancy).  Nevertheless, she made a point of spending a few minutes talking with each of her children every day, dedicating her attention to their individual development.  This was undoubtedly a major contribution to building the self-esteem of her famous sons, enabling them to become the driving force behind the evangelical revival of the 18th century.  Susanna Wesley has been described by historians as “one of the most significant women in history”.


Recently, in conversation with a colleague, we were discussing how parents can influence their children’s lives and whether it is possible to ensure that they will be successful in life.  “I think I do all the right things,” he said, “but I wonder if perhaps I’m ‘missing a trick’.  Is there one single simple activity that will guarantee they do well?”


He was not asking simply for selfish purposes.  Both he and I are concerned with helping people to get the most out of life, both for themselves and their children.  We both recognise that every parent wants the best for their offspring – but they are not always clear about the best way of securing it.  If only there was a sure-fire solution: something that every parent could do (with very little training) which would bring immediately perceptible results as well as laying the foundation for longer term success.


It may sound like a tall order but I needed only a few seconds to think about it.  My answer?  Talk to your child – individually – for ten minutes each day.





Research conducted in five Milton Keynes primary schools by the Open University shows that children who have been helped to improve their oral communication skills perform better at tests of reasoning  (Times Educational Supplement.  15 January 1999).  Pupils aged between eight and eleven have been taking part in regular “Talk Lessons” in which they are encouraged to engage in productive discussion.  Simple ground rules are established to ensure that opinions are respected and everybody gets a fair hearing.  Pupils are then taught to express their opinions, to support them with argument and to listen to the views of others.  “Why?” features strongly in every “talk lesson”.


It has long been accepted that thinking is dependent on language (although that need not imply an oral language) and the Milton Keynes experiment reinforces the link between the development of communication skills and critical thinking.  Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that developing language capability will also help to develop “general intelligence”.


Parents and carers can encourage language development in babies by:


  • talking to the baby about what they are doing, describing their actions and the objects being used;

  • removing dummies so that babies can respond by babbling – and eventually talking;

  • modelling conversations for the child to copy;

  • allowing space for the child to respond, even if such responses are initially unintelligible.  (This helps the child to learn the nature of conversation and recognise that they are expected to respond.);

  • using repetitive rhymes that the child can gradually learn and eventually contribute to;

  • using lots of visual stimuli – such as toys and pictures;

  • offering lots of encouragement by way of smiles and cuddles.



Whereas we may be able to see the benefits of talking to young children, we may find it a little more difficult to see how this applies to babies who have yet to learn how to talk.  Recent studies, however, indicate that talking to babies for half an hour a day markedly increases their levels of intelligence.  Another research project at Oxford University has shown that children who engage in pointing and naming games prior to going to school are at an advantage during their first three years at school.  The typical babbling exhibited by babies is their attempt to speak – and to learn language.  They can be encouraged in this mammoth task by the adults (and older siblings) with whom they have contact.


Much of this comes apparently "naturally" to most parents but an alarmingly high number of parents, particularly those who have not had good role models to imitate, leave children alone (or in front of the “telly”) so that they can get on unhindered with their daily tasks.  Yet it is face-to-face contact with adults that enables a child to develop language skills by a process of imitation and practice.


How to talk to your school-age child


Show interest.  Listen carefully and pursue the line of conversation rather than jumping from one topic to another.  This encourages children to explore issues in greater depth.


Ask questions.  “Open ended” questions that require explanations as answers are better than “closed” questions that merely require short factual answers. Again, this will encourage children to think through issues.


Make connections.  Try to link what children tell you with previous learning or to their experience of life.  Encourage children to follow new avenues of thought but try not to go off on too much of a tangent.


Do not test them.  It is easy to fall into the trap of asking questions to which you know the “right” answers.  Children soon realise that you are merely checking their learning rather than furthering your own.


Acknowledge that there are things that you do not know – but which you are interested to find out about.  This puts your child in the driving seat.  It also shows that it is not “wrong” not to know something.  Indeed the foundation of learning is a readiness to admit that we do not already know something.




An important element in the process of learning is the opportunity to review what has been learned.  Good teachers take time at the end of each lesson to summarise the content of the lesson and to remind students how it fits in with the broader picture of what they have been studying.  Homework, wherever possible, should provide an opportunity for the student to re-visit the subject to facilitate recall and retention.  It is just as effective, and perhaps even more so, to talk about what the child has learned.  Research concerning retention rates indicates that we are ten times more likely to retain information that we have discussed than information we have merely heard.  Retention rate increases even more (to as much as eighteen-fold) if we teach others what we have learned.  Hence, we can increase our children’s understanding of “what they did in school today” simply by talking to them about it.




Older children and adults also benefit from talking about their learning.  Sometimes, it is not until we have explained it to someone else that we really start to understand a subject.  The process of vocalisation forces us to give structure to our ideas and in so doing we begin to make appropriate connections that help to cement our learning.  Explaining to someone else also puts us under pressure to simplify what we have learned.  In order to simplify we have to cut through to the heart of the topic.  This sifting process encourages analytical thought and in turn helps us to identify key points and relationships.


In the absence of someone else to talk to, “self talk” can also enable integration of learning and experience.  Keeping a reflective diary or writing up notes both help us to review and to revise our learning.  However, it is just as effective if we “talk ourselves through” our learning experiences.  Once again, it is the process of sifting and sorting that is important.  By engaging in regular “self talk”, our brains can be encouraged to identify those things that are likely to be useful and to store them and cross-reference them appropriately.


In addition, bearing in mind Plato’s dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living”, such a process can be a useful means of reviewing our life objectives, helping us to put each day’s experiences into perspective and enabling us to integrate each day’s learning into the broader spectrum of our experience.  So, whether you want to develop thinking skills in a young child, help an older child to get the most from school, or make more of your own life, remember – it’s good to talk.



Other articles to help you release your child's potential.


Developing confidence in mathematics

Developing self-esteem in your child

Let me tell you a story

Problem-solving skills for kids