Four thousand children in 37 cities and 15 states set a Guinness World Record for "largest vocabulary lesson" last week, through a vocabulary-focused read aloud of Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown, organized by PNC's Grow Up Great program last week.

The effort was part of a nationwide campaign being waged by educators and children's advocates to narrow the "word gap" that exists between preschool age children of lower socioeconomic status and their more affluent contemporaries. (We wrote about one high tech vocabulary-learning intervention going on among low income families in Providence, RI here.)

But even as educators rally to the "close the word gap" battle cry, new research shows that the task may not be quite so clear as increasing the sheer number of words children hear. Rather, the way children learn links more closely to language rituals and styles of speech that teach children not only the meaning of words themselves, but how language works and the function a word can serve.

Recently, The New York Times summarized "a growing body of research" suggesting that it's not word quantity as much as "the quality of the communication between children and their parents and caregivers" that matters.

A study presented on Thursday at a White House conference on “bridging the word gap” found that among 2-year-olds from low-income families, quality interactions involving words — the use of shared symbols (“Look, a dog!”); rituals (“Want a bottle after your bath?”); and conversational fluency (“Yes, that is a bus!”) — were a far better predictor of language skills at age 3 than any other factor, including the quantity of words a child heard.

“It’s not just about shoving words in,” said Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University and lead author of the study. “It’s about having these fluid conversations around shared rituals and objects, like pretending to have morning coffee together or using the banana as a phone. That is the stuff from which language is made.”

In a related finding, published in April, researchers who observed 11- and 14-month-old children in their homes found that the prevalence of one-on-one interactions and frequent use of parentese — the slow, high-pitched voice commonly used for talking to babies — were reliable predictors of language ability at age 2. The total number of words had no correlation with future ability.

The good news is that the more researchers know about how children acquire language, the better they are able to explain to parents how to help their children get ready for academic success. And the more publicity these efforts receive, the more generally aware parents and caregivers will become. A recent list of Eight Ways to Help Improve Your Child's Vocabulary on the Lifehacker website, for example, includes strategies that jibe with the recent findings about a qualitative strategy. 

Converse Regularly: One way to improve your young child's vocabulary is by simply talking more. Start conversations frequently. For younger kids like toddlers and babies, you can just give them a play-by-play of your daily activities: "Now I'm putting the cookies in the oven," or, "I'm getting ready to go to work."…

Pay Attention to Your Kids' Vocabulary: Do your best to simplify definitions, but provide copious detail and examples. If you're asked, "What does 'gigantic' mean?" say more than just "big." Also provide a comparison: An elephant is "big" when compared to a person, but "gigantic" when compared to an ant.…

Be Patient: You may need to repeat words and meanings multiple time before your child fully grasps the concept. This is completely normal.…Ronald Marx, professor of educational psychology and dean of education at the University of Arizona, recently said, "Exposure to books, exposure to language, explanations for things, all give kids opportunities for language growth."

Another great way to help children improve their vocabulary? Model your own curiosity about words by learning along with them, using, where quality also trumps quantity. Rather than exposing you to more words than you brain can handle, we repeat exposures at carefully spaced intervals to make sure everything you invest the time learning will truly stay in your brain.