The Thirty Million Word Initiative: Building a better brain for your child |

The Thirty Million Word Initiative: Building a better brain for your child

Dana Suskind's book is a unique look inside parenting.
Courtesy Penguin Random House |

TRUCKEE, Calif. — Babies aren’t born smart — they’re made smart by parents talking with them.

A 1995 study found that some children heard thirty million fewer words by their fourth birthdays than others.

The children who heard more words were better prepared when they entered school. These same kids, when followed into third grade, had bigger vocabularies, were stronger readers, and got higher test scores.

University of Chicago Professor Dana Suskind, MD, has written a book called “Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain,” based on her The Thirty Million Word Initiative, a research program that studies the scientifically demonstrated critical importance of early language exposure on the developing child.

Suskind has developed programs for parents to show the kind of parent-child communication that enables optimal brain development.

She encourages parents to create a rich learning environment that involves tuning into what a child is interested in, keeping in mind that tuning in is deterred by digital distractions, such as computers, tablets and smart phones.

In order to set the stage for optimum brain development, Suskind has created what she calls the Three Ts: Tune in to what your child is doing; Talk more to your child using lots of descriptive words; and Take turns with your child as you engage in conversation. 

Talk more refers to more than just the number of words, but rather the kind of words used. Imagine the brain as a piggy bank. Don’t just stick pennies into the bank. Use a wonderfully diverse vocabulary day after day. Talk with a child, especially about what the child is focusing on, not just TO him or her.

Tune in is another critical element of parent-child attachment and brain development. Narrate what you are doing, even if it seems silly to do. Suskind also recommends using parallel talk, which is commentary on what the child is doing.

Take turns refers to back and forth exchanges, focused more on open-ended questions. While we know to avoid yes and no questions, also avoid “what” questions, as they are low on the totem pole for enhancing conversational exchange or building vocabulary because they only ask a child to retrieve words he or she is already familiar with.

It does little to keep a conversation going or teach the child anything new. (Parents of monosyllabic teenagers are all too familiar with this phenomenon.)

Conversely, a simple “how” or “why” allows a child to respond with a wide range of words, thoughts, and ideas. Parents are shown how to make the words they serve up more enriching. For example, instead of telling a child, “Put your shoes on,” one might say instead, “It is time to go out. What do we have to do?”

As a parent and librarian, it is heartening to learn that optimal brain development can be achieved with something as simple as conversing with your child.

Next time, I will outline the ways to put the Three Ts in action, which includes tools that are music to my librarian’s ear: book sharing, print awareness, and storytelling. In the meantime, you can check out the book it its entirety at the Truckee Library.

Teri Andrews Rinne is the children’s services librarian at the Truckee Library, 10031 Levon Ave. Call 530-582-7846 or visit

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