Growing Language & Communication Skills: More Than Baby Talk

A child’s success or failure in school is determined long before he or she steps foot in a classroom. With funding from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust as part of its Great Expectations early childhood effort, Smart Start of Forsyth County and the UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute are collaborating to enrich the language and communication skills of infants and toddlers by enhancing both the skills and the confidence of the early childhood educators.

‘More Than Baby Talk’ is designed to address the school readiness of children through the professional development of infant and toddler teachers in child care settings. Many early childhood programs focus on the structural aspects of child care programs, such as group size and teacher-child ratios, with less attention to the quality of the interactions between children and their teachers and caregivers.  These interactions are especially important for fostering language and communication skills among young children, as such skills have been found to predict children’s later achievement in math, reading, and science, skills critical for school readiness and academic success.

“Many children spend the bulk of their day with early childhood educators. More Than Baby Talk helps teachers bolster children’s ability to share ideas and information, understand others, express themselves, and use meaningful words, gestures, and body language,” said Nicole Gardner-Neblett, Ph.D., Investigator, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute and co-author of the study that developed More Than Baby Talk. “The guide and the workshops help early childhood educators see how their use of language can grow the communication skills of the children in their care. And we try to do that in a way that is easy to understand and easy to implement in the classroom.”

Over the last two decades early childhood researchers have found that the first years of life are an important period of rapid brain development. During this time, early experiences provide a foundation for learning, making them critical for language learning.

Growing language and communications skills is especially critical for children from low-income families, who have been found to have weaker language skills than children from homes with more resources. One study estimates that by the time they’ve reached three years of age children from professional families have heard 30 million more words than children from low-income families.

More Than Baby Talk was designed to help close that gap.

Created by Nicole Gardner-Neblett and Kathleen Cranley Gallagher, both of the UNC Frank Porter Graham Childhood Development Institute, More Than Baby Talk professional development workshops and one-on-one coaching are underway in Forsyth County.

Workshops focus on the 10 practices identified by Gardner-Neblett and Gallagher that promote language and communication skills:


Get Chatty: Engaging in conversations with children
Be a Commentator: Giving descriptions of objects, activities or events
Mix It Up: Using different types of words and grammar
Label It: Providing children with the names of objects or actions
Tune In: Engaging in activities or objects that interest children
Read Interactively: Using books to engage children’s participation
Read it Again & Again & Again: Reading books multiple times
Props, Please!: Introducing objects that spark conversations
Make Music: Engaging in musical activities
Sign It: Using gestures or simple signs with words

To date, Nicole Gardner-Neblett and her colleague Allison De Marco, a scientist out of the UNC Frank Porter Graham Childhood Development Institute, have hosted two More Than Baby Talk workshops attended by dozens of educators in Forsyth County. An additional eight workshops will be held in the months ahead.

Because of Smart Start, Inc.’s deep roots in Forsyth County and its two-plus decades serving the birth-to-five population, the organization oversees teacher recruitment and provides the administrative support and infrastructure necessary to hold the trainings and provide one-on-one coaching for educators.

Led by Gardner-Neblett and De Marco, the More Than Baby Talk workshop is interactive and includes videos of model teachers to demonstrate classroom implementation. Participating teachers are invited to role play and discuss strategies for supporting language and communication in their classrooms.

“Our goal is to make every child’s experience in childcare as rich as possible in terms of the language input they receive from their teachers. More Than Baby Talk workshops increase each teacher’s knowledge, awareness, and capacity. Many of the early childhood educators we meet are already doing the things we introduce in the workshops, but we’re helping those teachers do it in a more intentional way and take it to the next level,” said De Marco.

“It’s obvious that we should talk to kids, but More Than Baby Talk helps teachers recognize the importance of talking with kids and gives them the concrete skills to do that, ” said Gardner-Neblett. “The feedback we get from these teachers is always positive—these educators are eager to put what they have learned to work in their classrooms.”

“We’re also surveying workshop participants to gauge what teachers know before and after the trainings and then follow up in three months to look at any changes in their classroom practices,” said De Marco.

“The Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust’s investments in More Than Baby Talk and Smart Start are making our work possible,” added Gardner-Neblett. “Despite the fact that a child’s earliest years are so critical to future development, education, and health, it is challenging to find funders to invest in early childhood efforts geared towards the infant and toddler years like More Than Baby Talk.”