Coaching parents to close the word gap

Digital word counters and coaching for parents on toddler talk could help close the “word gap,” hope researchers in Providence, Rhode Island.

Fifty-five toddlers in welfare families, including 2.5-year-old Nylasia Jordan, are part of the pilot, reports John Tulenko for PBS.

Social worker Courtney Soules shows Nylasia’s father that she’s heard 5,000 words on the day she was recorded.  An average child will hear about 16,000 words a day.

There was almost no conversation from 10 am to 4 pm — and lots of TV time. The graphs are helpful, says Freddie Jordan. “Everybody wants their kids to learn more, talk more, full words.”

Soules is encouraging the father to talk more.

Modeling conversation, so, asking her questions, and giving her choices.

And have her point. And as she’s pointing at, say…

And also labeling, whether you’re taking a walk and that you’re pointing out birds and trees, and animals to when you are sitting in the house and that you’re reading a book together.

So far, the pilot has raised the daily word count by 300 to 500 words, not enough to make a difference.

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  1. dangermom says:

    Habits and expectations can be so hard to change. I believe it’s very important to teach kids in this way, but I don’t know how we can effectively help parents learn to do it.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    Wow. More than tripling word count to get up to average. Not. Gonna. Happen.
    Not with the best will in the world could the habit of a lifetime and culture change that far.

  3. Mark Roulo says:

    I like that the article doesn’t mess around and makes its correlation/causation screwup in the first two sentences 🙂

    By age four, toddlers in low-income families hear 30 million fewer words than those in high-income families, according to researchers. As a result, these children tend to have smaller vocabularies and fall behind in reading.

  4. I don’t know what to make of this program. Is this the responsibility of government to tell parents to talk to their children more often? It seems highly paternalistic to me.

  5. Isn’t the whole premise that a) kids from better education/higher class home hear a lot more words and b) this exposure makes a big difference in future education outcomes based on 1 or 2 very limited studies? Has the premise been validated to any real extent yet?

  6. palisadesk says:

    It’s a bit more complex than that. The number of studies that involve extensive observation and recording of parent-child interaction and verbal exchanges over a period of years, with tabulation and correlation with school achievement through the primary grades and beyond is, in fact, limited by the complexity and cost of such studies. There have been several very thorough ones that I know of (Hart and Risley are the well-known researchers who first explored this topic, and their findings have been expanded upon by others)

    Social class is a factor but, when statistical controls are applied, a low-SES or working class child who has similar or greater vocabulary development will perform at the level of a higher-SES child with similar vocabulary and this trajectory is found to continue through fourth grade(and beyond in some studies)..

    What further research found was that it was not merely the quantity of words heard, but the complexity of them as well. If a child heard only the 2000 most common words, but heard them all day long in extensive verbal interchange, s/he would not be much better off than a child who had less interaction (but similar word count). Complex vocabulary and grammatical structures became significant factors measured in some other studies.

    The relationship of preschool receptive vocabulary to later reading and writing achievement is very well validated, however, as a number of studies have measured preschool children’s receptive vocabulary (usually with the PPVT) and tracked that and other language skills through the elementary grades. Greater vocabulary and receptive comprehension (including grammar in some studies) correlated very closely with academic achievement in the early grades. In the early years a larger vocabulary is a better predictor of reading development than IQ.

    This is a fascinating (and complex) field with some promising avenues for intervention. Seminal work in the field has been done by Dale, Biemiller, Kamil, Snowling, Hiebert, Stahl and Whitehurst, to name a few.

    For those interested, I posted about a low-SES child who illustrates this phenomenon at KTM a few years ago. Here’s the link:
    The relevant anecdote is the second one.
    When I met with the parents– both shift workers — to explain the child’s results i asked the parents about their own intellectual interests and education. They looked at me with surprise. Neither was educated (due to circumstance), they did not speak English at home, but they did say they constantly talked to the child and elaborated on her observations and questions, talked about the properties of things, the reason for what they were doing (for example, what tool Dad was using, for what repair job, how it worked, etc.).

    This child scored extremely high on the Weschler Intelligence Scale. And, she held her own — I see that she has now completed her sophomore year in a STEM field (on a full scholarship) at a very prestigious university. Obviously native ability plays a role but it is also necessary for that native ability to be stimulated and developed.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    Talking about birthdays with my seven-year-old granddaughter, She said, “The Fourth of July is a birthday for you and greatgrampa ’cause you fighted in the war.”
    I told her that everybody who’s been in the service is a veteran. Her response was that the Fourth of July was the veterans’ birthday, like.
    Couple of things. She’s been taught, one way or another, about the connection between the Fourth and the country. She connected that with fighting for the country. And she came to a metaphorical conclusion that the Fourth is a big deal for those who fighted in the war.
    She’s bright as a new penny, but you can’t make conclusions about things like that if you haven’t been taught conclusions, or logical extensions, or things pretty much like other things, and have a large-scale view of the world so that you can see far, to make a metaphor.
    Her parents–and her grandparents–are constantly talking to her about things, and things leading to other things and how they work….
    Tomorrow, we’re taking her to a wildlife program at the local library. It’s….shhhh….FREE.

  8. Very interesting.
    I was wondering if there was actual research showing that students from
    Low vocab homes do actually gain from their advantaged peers in school? My children’s experience is that those with a high vocab are resented in the later years if they arent the majority in the classroom.

    • palisadesk says:

      “I was wondering if there was actual research showing that students from
      Low vocab homes do actually gain from their advantaged peers in school? ”

      None, to my knowledge. Most of the available research suggests that children in school do not learn much vocabulary from each other ( even the conversation of university graduates contains a very low percentage of complex or low-frequency words). Children’s books contain a very high percentage of complex and “rare” words — several times as much as informational TV, adult conversation, or adult general information magazines. Comic books also have a high percentage of advanced vocabulary.

      If no active intervention occurs, schooling merely ossifies the vocabulary gap, and does nothing to reduce it. Interactive reading aloud to children, especially preschool children, has shown empirical results, maintained over time, and some explicit teaching protocols and practices are also promising.

      Contrary to a popular (in some circles) opinion, children rarely develop advanced vocabularies “by osmosis” through wide reading. There is more to it than that, usually some direct interaction with an adult or the child actively seeking out information about the word.

      • “even the conversation of university graduates contains a very low percentage of complex and ‘rare’ words”

        Indeed in almost all human languages most speakers generally use a few thousand words.

  9. Hearing children of deaf-mute parents show normal IQ. Deaf children show a reduction in verbal IQ of about 15 points. I believe their non-verbal IQ is less affected.