Preschoolers' memory and language skills can be significantly improved if their mothers talk to them in richer ways about past events, according to University of Otago research published today.
Associate Professor Elaine Reese, of the psychology department, said the findings had important implications for efforts to ensure children were well-prepared to learn once they reached school.
The study, published in the United States journal Child Development, found that training mothers to talk in a more detailed way helped their children's memory and narrative development by age 3 1/2.
Dr Reese and then-PhD student Rhiannon Newcombe carried out a year-long intervention study with 115 Dunedin mothers and their 1 1/2 to 3 1/2-year-old children.
At the start, researchers assessed all the mothers' natural style of talking about the past and their children's language skills and level of self awareness.
Half the mothers were then trained in "elaborative" questioning.
They were prompted to ask more open-ended questions containing new information about events and to confirm their children's responses and focus on what the child had found most interesting.
The children's memories were tested at 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 years in conversations about the past with their mothers and with researchers.
"We found that children of trained mothers remembered more details and told more complex stories about the past when conversing with their mothers than children of untrained mothers," Dr Reese said.
"These findings are important because children's language skills in the preschool years are a very good predictor of their early reading skill and their success in school."
The study began in 1999 when the children were one.
It is hoped a follow up will be conducted next year - when the children are 10 years old - to determine whether the training had lasting effects on language, reading, memory skills, and self concept.