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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Does babytalk matter? Word gap wrangle

By the age of three, children growing up in poverty hear 30 million fewer words than the children of educated parents, concluded a study published in 1992. Since then, encouraging low-income, less-educated mothers to talk more to their young children has been seen as a way to narrow the achievement gap, writes Anya Kamenetz on NPR. The “word gap” research “inspired early intervention programs, including the citywide effort Providence Talks in Rhode Island, the Boston-based Reach Out and Read, and the Clinton Foundation’s Too Small To Fail.”

Now, she concludes it’s time to “stop talking about the 30-million word gap.” Newer studies involving more families and using less intrusive recording technology have produced different numbers for the vocabulary gap.

She cites a 2017 study by the nonprofit LENA, which found a 4-million word gap, and the newly published Sperry study which calls itself a “failed replication” of Hart and Risley.

(Douglas) Sperry and his co-authors fall into a camp that criticizes the “word gap” concept as racially and culturally loaded in a way that ultimately hurts the children whom early intervention programs ostensibly trying to help. “To look at income alone obscures real questions about the cultural mismatch between children of color and mainstream European children and their teachers as they enter schools,” says Sperry. In other words, it’s not necessarily that poor children aren’t ready for school; it’s that schools and teachers are not ready for these children.

Asking children questions is a “middle-class, mostly white practice” that prepares them to answer questions in school, UCLA Education Professor Marjorie Faulstich Orellana told Kamenetz.

There are other values, like using language to entertain or connect, rather than just have children perform their knowledge. How do we honor different families rather than have families change their values to align with school?

Downplaying the word gap will hurt disadvantaged children, warns Roberta Golinkoff and other Brookings researchers.

The Sperry research didn’t replicate Hart-Risley, they write. It didn’t include professional parents. The study also counted speech that children might have overheard, even though research shows that “children just beginning their language-learning journey . . . learn best from speech directed to them by their caregivers.”

Cognitive scientist Dan Willingham also debunks the “debunking”, and cites studies that replicate its findings. One of them is the same LENA study mentioned by Kamenetz. It concludes: “Lower socioeconomic status (SES) children produced fewer vocalizations, engaged in fewer adult–child interactions, and were exposed to fewer daily adult words compared with their higher socioeconomic status peers, but within-group variability was high.”

That said, Willingham doesn’t think we can be confident that the number of words is the most important variable in building vocabulary.

It may be the conversational back and forth that matters. Or the diversity of speech. Or the gestures that go with speech. And oral language is only one contributor to vocabulary size and syntactic complexity. Maybe we should intervene to get more parents reading to their children, or better, using dialogic reading strategies.

He’s also queasy about “using science to tell people how to parent.”

That’s what people on Twitter were responding to on this issue (some explicitly, some implicitly)—the assumption that parents in poverty ought to parent more like middle-class parents. . . . On the other hand, should we fiercely defend parenting practices in the name of cultural equality or because we don’t want to let powerful institutions off the hook if we know those practices put children at a disadvantage in school, and later, in the job market? (Reminder, I don’t think that such evidence currently exists on parental speech volume.)

Is it enough to tell parents that talking to toddlers probably matters and then leave it up to them?

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