Smarter babies, word by word

Building a baby’s brain starts at birth, the Thirty Million Words Project tells brand-new mothers.

Hours after giving birth to her first child, Bionka Burkhalter agreed to listen to two women talk about the importance of talking to Josiah. The 21-year-old single mother, who has a GED, “heard about tuning into his cues and responding when he cries, and about giving him a chance to communicate back to her, even if just through eye contact,” reports Sara Neufeld on the Hechinger Report.

xx talks to newborn Josiah

Bionka Burkhalter talks to newborn Josiah, after hearing a Thirty Million Words presentation. (Photo: Julienne Schaer)

“Obviously, language can in itself be a key part of building a child’s brain, but the parent relationship really is the basis for all of child development,” said founder Dana Suskind, 46, a widowed mother of three school-age kids and a pediatric surgeon.

A long-term study will compare the effects of six months of home visits: Some mothers will get advice on communicating with their babies while the control group will hear about nutrition.

Suskind’s team will follow 200 Chicago children to measure their kindergarten readiness.

 Parents will be taught to weave back-and-forth conversation into daily activities, from diaper changing to cooking dinner, and to explain to children why they are being asked to do things, rather than just directing them. They’ll be urged to go on a “technology diet,” since children need human interaction; their brains don’t build connections with televisions and computers. And they’ll be prompted to praise their children’s efforts rather than the outcomes of their actions so they won’t be discouraged from taking chances when something doesn’t work out. (“I love how hard you worked on that!” would be preferable to “You’re so smart!”)

“The ultimate answer is the whole society understanding how important parents are in their children’s development,” Suskind said. In low-income communities, “they’ve been told the opposite, that they’re not powerful.”

‘Word gap’ is about quality, not just quantity

By age 3, the children of poorly educated, low-income mothers have heard 30 million fewer words than the children of educated, middle-class mothers, a study showed nearly 20 years ago. The “word gap” is about the quality of parent-child conversation, not just the number of words, reports the New York Times.

For 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, according to a new study.

“It’s not just about shoving words in,” said lead author Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple. “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.”

Talking more is the first step, said Ann Fernald, a Stanford psychologist. “When you learn to talk more, you tend to speak in more diverse ways and elaborate more, and that helps the child’s cognitive development.”

Fernald advises Providence Talks, a Rhode Island program that outfits babies and toddlers with devices that record the number of words they hear each day. Counselors evaluate the children’s exposure to language and teach parents communications skills.

CDC: Autism rate surges by 30%

One in 68 children has autism, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a 30 percent rise over the estimate only two years ago. The “proportion of children with autism and higher IQ (is) on the rise,” said a CDC statement.

“It could be that doctors are getting better at identifying these children, there could be a growing number of children with high intelligence [who are autistic], or it could be both,” said Coleen Boyle director of the CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, in a telephone news conference.

Autism rates vary by place. “Only one child in 175 was diagnosed with autism in Alabama, while one in 45 was found to have the disorder in New Jersey,” notes the Washington Post.

The CDC is encouraging parents to have young children screened for autism in their early years. I’d guess high-IQ parents already are doing that. 

Autism begins in pregnancy, according to a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers discovered “focal patches of disrupted development” in cortical layers of the brain that are developed during pregnancy.  

The brain regions most affected were the frontal cortex, which is associated with complex communication and comprehension of social cues, and the temporal cortex, which is associated with language.

‘Why I study Latin’

Latin is worth studying, writes Zeke Coady, a 15-year-old student in Sydney, Australia. “It’s fun.”

The thing that makes Latin intriguing is that it is not used any more. Studying it is like looking through a museum of language, seeing what parts of language we didn’t want or need, and what parts we’ve kept for more than 2000 years. And then if you take Latin and change some other things, changing different words and adding some grammar, you get an entirely different language, such as Italian. Latin is the common ancestor here; Latin lets us look at Italian, and instead of seeing an entirely different language, we see that it just followed a different path from the common root.

Zeke  knows his Latin studies probably won’t help him find a job. He chose Latin — and ancient Greek — over economics “because I think it’s enjoyable just to learn for the sake of learning.”

Via Norm Geras.

Smart talk

Aneisha Newell, playing with daughter Alona Sharp and son Amod Newell, uses fewer directives with her children since participating in the Thirty Million Words trial, instead asking open-ended questions that give them an opportunity to respond.
Aneisha Newell, playing with children Alona and Amod, asks more open-ended questions. —Photo by Kim Palmer/Hechinger Report

Poorly educated, low-income, single mothers will talk to their babies — developing their language skills — if someone tells them it matters, writes Sara Neufeld in Slate. That’s the idea behind Chicago’s Thirty Million Words Project, which was started by a surgeon who does cochlear implants to help deaf children hear. Dana Suskind noticed the children of educated parents learned to talk quickly, once they could hear. Disadvantaged children were slow to develop language.The Thirty Million Words curriculum is delivered in 12 weekly home visits.

Every week, a young child in a participating family would spend a day wearing a small electronic device in a shirt pocket to record the number of words heard and spoken, plus the number of “turns” in a conversation—the amount of back-and-forth between parent and child. Words heard on television did not count.

Shurand Adams, 25, dropped out of high school to work at McDonald’s. She thought her 3-year-old daughter’s education would begin in kindergarten. The home visitor encouraged her to read to her daughter and pause to let her respond.

 She learned to continually engage her daughter in conversation, whether about food names in the grocery store or colors in the park. “Now I know I can just have a regular conversation with her,” Adams said. “Just ask her about her day, even if I can’t understand half of it.” She was teaching Teshyia the letters of her name on the day I met them, and she’s considering possibilities for continuing her own education.

In low-income households, parents often speak to their children in simple commands, writes Neufeld. Aneisha Newell has changed that.

“Instead of saying, ‘go put on your shoes,’ I can say, ‘All right, it’s time to go. What else do you need? … That gives my child the chance to respond, and say, ‘shoes,’ ” said Newell, 25, who has a 4-year-old daughter and a 10-month-old son and works for a company providing recess supervision and after-school activities in Chicago Public Schools.

Newell said many of her friends and relatives think she’s crazy for talking to her daughter as if she’s an adult. “I can quote this: ‘Neisha, no one wants to sit and talk to the kids like they understand’ That’s basically the response I get.”

Her daughter peppers her with questions. She can spell her first and last names, recite her address and phone number, recognize and spell colors, and count to 200.

Hispanic kids lag in language, not social skills

Mexican-American preschoolers fall behind white children in language and preliteracy skills, but do just as well in social skills, according to a Berkeley-UCLA study.

Mexican American toddlers between ages 2 and 3 displayed language and cognitive skills about eight months behind those of their white peers, whether assessed in English or Spanish. This gap persisted through ages 4 and 5, with Mexican American children entering kindergarten already behind.

. . . “The slight schooling of Mexican-heritage mothers, juggling more young children at home, and weak traditions of reading with one’s child, conspire to suppress early language and cognitive growth,” (UCLA pediatrician Alma) Guerrero said.

Mexican-American parents are much less likely to read to their children regularly. But, in other ways, they were warm, supportive parents, said Berkeley sociologist and study co-author Bruce Fuller. “We find robust cultural strengths in Mexican American homes when it comes to raising eager and socially mature preschoolers.”

Mother-child language researcher dies

Betty Hart, whose research showed the importance of mother-child communication in the early years, has died at 85 in Tucson, reports the New York Times.

“Rather than concede to the unmalleable forces of heredity, we decided that we would undertake research that would allow us to understand the disparate developmental trajectories we saw,” she and her former graduate supervisor, Todd R. Risley, wrote in 1995 in “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children,” a book about their findings, which were reported in 1992.

. . . “Simply in words heard, the average child on welfare was having half as much experience per hour (616 words per hour) as the average working-class child (1,251 words per hour) and less than one-third that of the average child in a professional family (2,153 words per hour),” Drs. Hart and Risley wrote.

“By age 4, the average child in a welfare family might have 13 million fewer words of cumulative experience than the average child in a working-class family,” they added.

Educated mothers were much more likely to use an encouraging, warm tone with young children,  while welfare mothers were more likely to reprimand their children.

The Hart-Risley research has been very influential, yet I think we could do more to help poorly educated mothers improve their parenting styles. Early childhood education funding should be focused on very disadvantaged children who need social and emotional support and exposure to language.

Vocabulary is destiny

In New York City, ambitious students are prepping for the test that decides admission to selective high schools. The game is rigged, writes Ginia Bellafante in For Poor Schoolchildren, a Poverty of Words in the New York Times.

Not too long ago, I witnessed a child, about two months shy of 3, welcome the return of some furniture to his family’s apartment with the enthusiastic declaration “Ottoman is back!”  The child understood that the stout cylindrical object from which he liked to jump had a name and that its absence had been caused by a visit to someone called “an upholsterer.” The upholsterer, he realized, was responsible for converting the ottoman from one color or texture to another.

. . . Reflexively, the affluent, ambitious parent is always talking, pointing out, explaining: Mommy is looking for her laptop; let’s put on your rain boots; that’s a pigeon, a sand dune, skyscraper, a pomegranate.

The children of less-educated parents don’t learn the words or the world knowledge. They start school behind — and they rarely catch up.

As the education theorist E. D. Hirsch recently wrote in a review of Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed, there is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age 6 is the single highest correlate with later success.

We need high-quality preschools, not better test-prep programs in middle school, Bellafante writes.

If vocabulary is destiny, memorizing word lists doesn’t help, writes Robert Pondiscio at Core Knowledge Blog. We learn words “by repeated exposure to unfamiliar words in context.”  General knowledge provides the context.

What is needed to close the verbal gap is not just preschool. Not even “high quality” preschool. What is needed is high-quality preschool that drenches low-income learners in the language-rich, knowledge-rich environment that their more fortunate peers live in every hour of every day from the moment they come home from the delivery room.

Teachers should read aloud in class, adds Doug Lemov (Teach Like a Champion) in an e-mail discussion.

(Reading aloud) allows students to hear far more sophisticated words than they could decode and process on their own and at a faster rate than they could process on their own.  It’s a highly efficient delivery mechanism for sophisticated vocabulary development (with expression to aid with context and as an aside it also introduces complex syntax and language structures in advance of students being able to decode them successfully.)

But “reading aloud is a dying art these days,” Lemov writes.

 

When English Learners don’t learn

By middle and high school, 59 percent of California’ s English Language Learners aren’t making progress, a study by Californians Together found. Now, if the governor signs the bill, California will be the first state to report data on “long-term” ELLS, reports Ed Week.

A long-term English-learner is defined as a student who’s attended U.S. schools for more than six years, but tests poorly in English Language Arts and in English proficiency and hasn’t moved up a level on the state’s English proficiency exam for two years or more.

These non-learners typically speak English as well (or poorly) as they speak Spanish, but don’t read or write well in either language.  They’ve lived down to low expectations.

In Tracy, where 55 percent of secondary students are long-term ELLs, teachers have created a supplementary class to teach writing, “academic” English, critical reading and study skills, reports Ed Week.

Children from non-English-speaking families who test as proficient in English by second or third grade are high performers who do very well in school.  Those who  leave ELL status by the end of elementary school have a good shot at success.  But the kids who haven’t made it by sixth grade face long odds of completing high school. California has lots and lots of these kids — and I’d bet other states do too.

Why kids should specialize

Kids suffer long-term from schoolwork that doesn’t interest them argues career advice blogger Penelope Trunk, who’s started homeschooling her children.

When people ask me why my kids aren’t learning math, I ask them why their kids aren’t learning an instrument. Or why they aren’t learning a language. Because math, music, and language all develop the brain in similar ways. They are all good for a similar type of learning. But the question that assumes that math is the one right way to develop that part of the brain betrays the assumption that traditional school knows best.

Traditional schools want students to learn a little bit of everything, Trunk writes. But the world rewards specialists.

For ten years I have been writing about how important specializing is for your career. Specialization is essential, really, to to staying employable throughout your adult life. But I have recently been blown away by how clear the research is that kids should specialize as well.

Which means that you either need to make your kid great at the test-taking game, or you need to find something else for the kid to be great at.

What if your children are good at various things but not really great at anything? What if your five-year-old wants to specialize in TV watching or dolls or dinosaurs and no interest in math or music or language?