Closing the ‘word gap’

Providence Talks hopes to close the “word gap” between rich and poor, reports NPR. The project is funded by a $5 million, three-year grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Providence will distribute small recording devices — essentially word pedometers — that tuck into the vest of a child’s clothing. These will automatically record and calculate the number of words spoken and the number of times a parent and child quickly ask and answer each other’s questions.

The LENA Foundation in Colorado developed the device, which makes it easy to track verbal interactions. Parents will get coaching in how develop their children’s language skills.

The children of low-income, less-educated parents may be six months behind in language development by the age of two, a Stanford study estimates. By the time they start kindergarten at 5, they score more than two years behind.

The Providence experiment was inspired by Three Million Words in Chicago, another gap-closing effort.

Aneisha Newell says that program taught her to talk to her young daughter in new ways. She says she never realized bath time — with colors and shapes of bubbles and toys to describe — could be a teachable moment. She ended up breaking the program’s record for the most words spoken.

And then there was the moment her daughter — not yet 3 years old — used the word ‘ridiculous’ correctly.

University of Chicago Professor Dana Suskind, who started 30 Million Words, said sitting in front of the TV doesn’t develop language. It takes interaction between the caregiver and the child.

“We can’t just have people saying 30 million times ‘stop it!’ It’s got to be much more,” she says.

The parent should “tune in” to what the child is looking at, talk about it and ask questions that can create a sort of “serve and return” between parent and child.

In Chicago, adults and children spoke and interacted more after receiving feedback from the LENA recordings and home visits, reports The Atlantic. Suskind is advising Providence Talks.

“Close the word gap, advocates say, and you might close the achievement gap and maybe even disrupt the cycle of poverty,” concludes The Atlantic. 

I like the idea of working directly with parents rather than trying to create preschools to do — a few hours a day — what parents aren’t doing at home. I’d make videos modeling parent-child conversations — and throw in a little coaching on how to get a child to “use your words.”

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