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?
They may be simple, but conversational turns are also incredibly powerful. Conversational turns are among the most predictive metrics of child outcomes.
Conversational turns are linked to the strength of white matter connections between two key language regions in the brain, according to a paper published in the Journal of Neuroscience. Read more about how conversational turns are connected to brain structure!
Conversational turns are linked to activation in Broca's area of the brain, a well-known language center, according to a paper published in the journal Psychological Science. Read more about how conversational turns are connected to brain function!
Conversational turns are linked to increased surface area of the left perisylvian cortex, an area of the brain associated with language comprehension and reading skills, according to a paper published in the journal Child Development. Read more about how conversational turns are connected to reading skills!
Conversational turns in the first three years of life are linked to higher IQ scores in middle school, according to a paper published in the journal Pediatrics. Read more about how conversational turns are connected to IQ scores!
Conversational turns are linked to increased emotional regulation, attachment, and emotional communication, according to a paper published in the journal Development Science. Read more about how conversational turns are connected to socioemotional development!
Language, executive functioning, and reasoning scores
Conversational turns are linked to cortical growth in language and social processing regions of the brain, according to a paper published in the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. Read more about how conversational turns are connected to language, executive functioning, and reasoning scores!
Importantly, there's overwhelming evidence that conversational turns 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.)
Video highlights: Recent studies highlight the importance of conversational turns
Dr. Jill Gilkerson, LENA's Chief Research and Evaluation Officer, led a team that 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 scores 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.
Dr. Esteban Gómez Muzzio and Dr. Katharine Strasser published the results of their study about the importance of conversational turns for socioemotional development in 2021. The paper, conducted through the Pontificia Catholic University of Chile, found a strong correlation between conversational turns at 18 months of age and socioemotional development at 30 months of age.
Download the latest reports
about conversational turns
Inside Early Talk
Data analyses from 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.
LENA programs put research into action, changing communities for the better worldwide.
LENA technology — the only validated measure of conversational turns in the world — powers the research discoveries that prove the importance of conversational turns. The same technology also powers LENA's programs for parents and teachers, helping caregivers everywhere tap into the brain-building potential of conversational turns.
If you're interested in learning more about bringing a LENA program to your community, please send us an email or schedule a meeting. We also invite you to complete a program readiness assessment to see where you are on your LENA journey. If you're a researcher and you want to learn more about incorporating LENA technology into your work, LENA SP is the tool for gaining early language insights in research and clinical applications.