"Do you remember when we…" is an important phrase for parents who want to support their children's language development

A new research study from TrygFonden's Centre for Child Research at Aarhus BSS at Aarhus University shows that ordinary everyday conversations between parents and children about shared experiences can help three to five year-old children develop their language skills just as much as shared book reading. However, both activities are important as they provide children with different types of linguistic input.

[Translate to English:] Forskere fra TrygFondens Børneforskningscenter ved Aarhus BSS har undersøgt, hvor godt forældres sprog understøtter barnets sprog i tre forskellige hverdagssituationer.
Researchers from TrygFonden's Centre for Child Research at Aarhus BSS have studied the extent to which parental language supports a child's language development in three different everyday situations. Photo: Colourbox

Early language development in children is important for their well-being and development during childhood and well into adulthood. Children learn language by interacting with others, especially their parents.  

It is well known that reading aloud to children between the ages of three and five gives parents the opportunity to involve their children in conversations that strengthen their language development. What is new, however, is that speaking to a child about shared experiences like a trip to the park or beach is just as beneficial to the child’s language development as reading. This was demonstrated in a recently published research study conducted by researchers from TrygFonden's Centre for Child Research and their colleagues from Florida Atlantic University. In the study, they looked at how parental language can support a child's language development in three different everyday situations: reading books together, talking about past experiences and playing with building blocks.  

However, conversations about shared experiences cannot replace reading a book together because the two conversational situations have separate benefits, emphasises Senior Researcher Fabio Trecca from TrygFonden's Centre for Child Research and the School of Communication and Culture at Aarhus University, who is one of the researchers behind the study:  

"Reading a book together and talking about shared experiences provide equal opportunity for high-quality linguistic input that the child can learn from - and both situations give rise to richer language than shared play. However, the two conversational situations have different benefits. When reading aloud, parents use more words and a more varied vocabulary. When talking about shared experiences, parents use more grammatically complex language and involve the child in the conversation to a greater degree. All of these elements are important for the child’s language development.”   

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An extra iron in the fire

The results were reached by analysing approx. 80 hours of video footage of 155 Danish children aged three to five and their parents as they read a wordless picture book, talked about a shared experience, and played with building blocks.  

During each activity, the researchers measured a number of parental language characteristics that research has shown to be important for enhancing child language development. For example, asking different types of questions, labelling things and actions, and repeating and expanding on what the child says. The researchers also measured how much the children spoke, as this has a positive correlation with later language skills. And while the results emphasise the importance of shared book reading, they also put an extra iron in the fire to help busy parents support their children's language development in everyday life without requiring a lot of extra time, equipment or parenting classes: prioritise good, everyday conversations about shared experiences.  

According to Fabio Trecca, these two everyday activities are suitable for developing parental interventions that can strengthen the child’s linguistic home learning environment.  

However, it should be noted that a parent’s educational background affects the linguistic quality and support that children receive in the different situations, says Fabio Trecca:   

"Although the study shows that shared book reading and conversations about shared experiences provide rich language input, the effect is greater for children of parents with higher education. Therefore, simply ramping up these types of interactions is likely to benefit children of highly educated parents more than children of parents with little or no education. So, if you want to enhance the language skills of young children while also narrowing the gap between children from different social backgrounds, then you need to do more to give children from educationally disadvantaged homes an extra boost”. 

On the other hand, the study shows that there is no difference between mothers and fathers with regard to the quality of the parents’ language during the three activities.  

Reminiscing – talking about past experiences 

The concept of reminiscing describes the process of remembering and talking about past events, experiences or memories. That's what the children and parents who participated in the research study are doing when they talk about an experience they've shared. International studies suggest that reminiscing is a natural and meaningful way for children to learn and develop their language. Reminiscing supports children's language development in a number of important areas:   

  • Vocabulary: Through reminiscing, children hear new words. Parents can introduce and explain new words when sharing memories and experiences with their children.  

  • Language comprehension: When reminiscing, parents often use longer and more complex sentences than in other conversational situations. By listening to parents, children can develop their understanding of language structure, including sentence structure and grammar.  

  • Using decontextualised language: Reminiscing contains a lot of decontextualised language, that is, language referring to things that are not present in the child's immediate environment. The use of decontextualised language promotes a child's ability to think and talk about abstract and complex ideas.  

  • Communicative competencies: Through reminiscing, children can join the conversation and tell their own stories. Reminiscing strengthens their ability to express themselves verbally and to organise their thoughts into a coherent narrative. It also lets them practice listening to others, taking turns, and understanding other people's perspectives. Children's communication skills are especially supported when parents include their child in the conversation and expand on what the child says, for example by asking probing questions and helping the child express thoughts and feelings more fully.  


We strive to comply with Universities Denmark’s principles for good research communication. For this reason, we provide the following information as a supplement to this article: 

Type of Study Observational study 
External collaboration partners  None
External funding  Trygfonden
Conflict of interest 


Other N/A
Read the scientific article here (link)  Context and education affect the quality of parents' speech to children
Contact  Fabio Trecca