I’m sure many readers remember my CAP co-worker, Elizabeth, the former writer for this blog. A few weeks ago, Elizabeth forwarded me a link to “Five Numbers to Remember About Early Child Development.” It is a quick multimedia guide put together by Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child in order to drive home the importance of early learning.
All of the information on Harvard’s site is worth discussing. However, it was the second fact on their list that really stuck with me, because it highlights how disparities in children’s vocabulary begin to appear at 18 months of age. After I visited the Harvard site, I seemed to keep running across new studies and initiatives based on this language gap.
Researchers have long known about this gap in a child’s language skills and its connection to a family’s socio-economic status. In 1995, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley published a well-known study showing children in low-income families heard 30 million fewer words by age 3 than their peers in higher income families with more education.
Their study is detailed in the book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. The authors conclude that the amount of talk going on between infants and their caregivers plays a crucial part in educational outcomes before children even enter school and begin learning how to read.
A recent New York Times article covered a new study by Anne Fernald of Stanford University that demonstrates how early in a child’s life researchers can measure the word gap. This study builds on previous research and shows that,
At 18 months children from wealthier homes could identify pictures of simple words they knew — “dog” or “ball” — much faster than children from low-income families. By age 2, the study found, affluent children had learned 30 percent more words in the intervening months than the children from low-income homes.”
Because verbal language skills are related to reading comprehension, this language gap presents a long-term problem that follows kids as they proceed through each grade level. And, as a recent article in the Pediatrics journal stated, the development of an effective, large-scale program to address the effects of language delays has remained elusive. This is why there is urgency among advocates to push for proactive steps to enhance services for at-risk children. A 2011 Zero to Three policy report urged policymakers to consider the fact that language development begins before Kindergarten and recommended enacting policies to mitigate or prevent the word gap from occurring in the first place.
On our blog, we often talk about expanding early education opportunities to serve more families and children who are currently on waiting lists for high quality early learning programs. Quality pre-k programs help children from low-income families learn the social-emotional and foundational skills needed to start kindergarten on par with their peers. However, since the word gap reveals itself so early in a child’s development, children who have to wait until they are 3 or older to enter a pre-k program may not be able to avoid all of the negative educational impacts associated with delayed language acquisition.
While we advocate and wait for an expansion of quality early learning programs for all children at-risk of learning delays, there are efforts now underway to minimize the language gap through improved awareness. Lisa Guernsey, with New America Foundation, blogged about one such effort, the Thirty Million Words initiative, back in October.
Thirty Million Words is a project out of the University of Chicago that encourages parents to increase the amount of words they say to their babies as well as the quality of their communication with their children. The initiative’s name is drawn from the groundbreaking 1995 study by Hart and Risley mentioned above.
Tina Rosenberg, with the New York Times, wrote about the workshops Thirty Million Words provided for caregivers and the randomized control trial they conducted. The study was unpublished as of April, but the article states the results were positive and parents involved in the trial had an ongoing interest in tracking their language interactions with their kids. Once results become available it will be interesting to see what impact the interventions had on reducing the language gap between children from different socio-economic backgrounds.
Thirty Million Words is just one of many efforts being tested around the country to raise awareness about the importance of talking to infants and toddlers.
- To learn about “Providence Talks”, a large-scale effort to narrow the vocabulary gap by coaching parents on ways to increase a child’s language exposure, check out this Boston Globe article.
- For more information and recommendations to increase early language development, Zero to Three has published a policy report.
- To learn more about skill building activities for children to improve early literacy abilities, you can also access Zero to Three’s Early Literacy guide.