Conversational Turns

What are conversational turns?

Conversational turns are simple back-and-forth alternations between a child and an adult. LENA technology counts that a turn has occurred when an adult speaks and a child follows, or vice versa, with no more than five seconds in between. Any speech-like, non-cry sound counts as a turn — from an infant's coos to a toddler's words (either real or made up). Conversational turns are LENA’s proxy for quality “serve and return” interactions.

How are conversational turns related to
early brain development?

Recent research has shown conversational turns to be one of the most predictive metrics of child outcomes. Most importantly, a string of recent studies has indicated that conversations have more brain-building power than adult words alone. (That’s why you won’t see references to the “30 million word gap” on our website — the term has increasingly become outdated due to the latest science and doesn't adequately capture the complexities of the early talk gap.)

To learn more about the latest research on early talk, click here to download the white paper.

Proving the Power of Talk: 10 Years of Research on the Impact of Language on Young Children

The past decade has seen widespread acceptance that early language plays a critical role in babies’ brain growth and in their subsequent success in school and in life. Read a summary of the latest research on the power of early talk!


Download Inside Early Talk

For more insights about conversational turns in child care centers and at home, download LENA’s latest report.

Inside Early Talk

Data analyses from the over 10,000 children annually impacted by LENA’s programs have put us in the position to answer important questions about language environments in early childhood education. For instance, we’ve established 40 conversational turns per hour as a new benchmark for caregivers.

Download Inside Early Talk

Download Inside Early Talk

and Stream the webinar here.

Recent key studies highlight the importance of conversational turns:

In 2018, Dr. Rachel Romeo and a team of researchers at Harvard and MIT published two papers examining how conversational turns relate to children’s brain structure and brain function. The first paper shed light into the underlying neural mechanism that makes conversational turns so critical for early brain development, identifying a relationship between conversational turns and activation in Broca’s area, a language center in the brain.

The findings in the second paper indicate that conversational turns strengthen white matter “information highways” in the brain, allowing the whole brain to work together better.

Dr. Jill Gilkerson, head of LENA’s research department, and a team of researchers published the results of a 10-year longitudinal study in the fall of 2018 exploring how conversational turns relate to a child’s long-term outcomes. The study found a correlation between the amount of conversation turns experienced between 18-24 months of age and a child’s verbal abilities, language skills, and IQ in adolescence.

Dr. Kim Noble led a team at Teachers College, Columbia University to study the relationship between family socioeconomic background, children’s brain structure, and children’s reading skills. The study, published in early 2019, found that children who experienced more conversational turns had greater surface area on the left perisylvian cortex, and in turn, better reading skills.

LENA technology — the only validated measure of conversational turns in the world — powered these research discoveries. The same technology is used in our programs for parents and teachers to help them tap into the brain-building power of increasing conversational turns with children.

Learn more about our programs for caregivers and our tool for researchers.

If you're interested in hearing more about how to implement these programs, please send us an email or schedule a meeting.

The Power of Conversational Turns

In 2018, researchers published three important studies on how conversational turns in early childhood are related to brain activity, brain structure, and IQ in adolescence. Learn about the design and results of three of these studies by watching a webinar conversation between Dr. Jill Gilkerson and Dr. Rachel Romeo.

Watch a webinar with these researchers