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Focusing on the ‘Word Gap’ With Help from Hillary Clinton

Published:  October 11, 2013
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Flickr/Mikenan1

Help babies and toddlers learn words. This seemingly simple task has become a rallying cry for early childhood advocates over the past decade. Well-trained preschool teachers can cite chapter and verse on why it is important to immerse children in environments where they hear new words and are encouraged to speak and engage in conversation. Early language experiences, myriad studies show, help form the foundation for children’s learning and their success in school.

Now those messages are amplified for the public in a series of campaigns aimed at raising awareness among parents and community members. On Monday, for example, NBC's Education Nation put the spotlight on the Thirty Million Words initiative, a project of the University of Chicago that works with parents to encourage more “talk” and interaction with their young children. Last Friday, the project and ideas for scaling it up were the subject of a forum in Washington, D.C., that was originally supposed to be co-hosted by the White House Office on Science and Technology Policy, the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the University of Chicago. (Because of the government shutdown, the university ended up going it alone. No federal agency leaders could attend. See a recap on Twitter at #bridgethewordgap.)

And a week ago Thursday, the closely-watched potential Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton published an op-ed on the website for Too Small to Fail, a national initiative supported by the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation. The op-ed, “Closing the ‘Word Gap,’" emphasizes the importance of parents and caregivers taking time to talk with young children.

“Coming to school without words is like coming to school without food or adequate health care,” Clinton wrote. “It makes it harder for kids to develop their creativity and imagination, to learn, excel, and live up to their full potential. It should spur us to action just like child hunger and child poverty.”

Clinton’s advocacy and that of many other groups promoting language development is rooted in acclaimed research from Betty Hart and Todd Risley, the developmental psych duo that penned the 1995 book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children. One of the take-aways from their study – the finding that children with parents on welfare hear 30 million fewer words by the age of 3 than do children from parents in professional careers – is regularly repeated among child development experts.

Over the next several years, we will see how these “bridge the word gap” campaigns unfold. One city to watch – noted at the Friday event and mentioned by Clinton  -- is Providence, R.I. The city won the $5-million grand prize this year in the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge for Providence Talks, a project to launch in 2014 that combines the strengths of high-touch programs – such as voluntary home-visiting and parent-education initiatives – with the use of a digital recording device known as the LENA to “measure vocabulary exposure for children in low-income households and help parents close the word gap.”

Though it hasn’t started yet and is designed to launch among a small group of families at first, Providence Talks has already captured the attention of The Boston Globe and The New York Times. It has also attracted critical questions and interested onlookers from Language Log, an international blog of linguists and language experts. 

The emphasis on talking with young children is welcome. When my children were younger, I remember being so floored when I learned about the significance of simple talk and conversation in my children’s growth. I hadn’t realized how powerful a few moments of elaboration could be, whether lamenting the crumbs in the car seat or responding to questions about belly buttons. I am all for helping parents see the power of conversation. In fact, in some recent work for the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, we here at the Early Education Initiative, in conjunction with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, have been exploring how digital media in addition to books could have cascading effects if used thoughtfully to help parents prompt children’s language growth. (We put forth some possibilities in our 2012 paper, Pioneering Literacy in the Digital Wild West.)

But one thing we will need to watch is whether the tip towards talk becomes relegated to a dumbed-down quest for pushing a set quantity of vocabulary words instead of a blooming movement that helps parents recognize the power of conversation and interactions with their kids. Could we shift a bit to push a two-pronged message? Children not only need more words from mom and dad, they also need more opportunities to express themselves and ask questions too.

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