What Really Counts in the “Word Gap Count”?

Fred Rogers understood that early language development is important for a child’s ability to relate to the world and the people in it. Fred believed words help children better understand and manage their “inner drama.”  “What is mentionable is more manageable,” he would often say.

Fred also understood that conversation between child and adult is critical for children’s intellectual and emotional growth. His message to adults was simple: “What children want is for you to talk with them and listen to them. They want your undivided attention. They want you to recognize that their story—the one they bring to your story—is important, too.”

In June, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced new guidelines that encourage doctors to speak with parents about the importance of reading aloud, as well as talking and singing to infants from their first days of life. Reach Out and Read, a national nonprofit that enlists pediatricians to give out books to low-income families, published a summer reading list for children from birth through age 12.

President Obama also lent his support to a campaign to raise awareness of the importance of speaking and reading with children from birth. “We know that right now, during the first three years of life, a child born into a low-income family hears 30 million fewer words than a child born into a well-off family,” Obama said. Bridging this word gap, he said, is one of his top priorities.

The awareness campaign was organized by Too Small to Fail, a joint initiative of the Clinton Foundation and Next Generation focused on promoting early health and learning. At the 2014 Fred Forward Conference, Too Small to Fail’s director, Patti Miller, spoke about efforts to close the word gap, including a partnership with Spanish-speaking television network Univision to launch online content geared toward families with children from birth through age 5.

What does all this look like on the ground? In Chicago, the Thirty Million Words initiative uses home visits that combine a multimedia curriculum with a “word pedometer”—a digital recorder that tracks numbers of words and turns in conversation between adult and child—to help low-income parents bridge the word gap.

It’s not just how many words, but the quality of those words and the relationships in each child’s life that makes a difference.

Pediatric surgeon Dana Suskind founded Thirty Million Words after she noticed that her wealthier deaf and hard-of-hearing patients quickly learned to talk after receiving cochlear implants, whereas her low-income patients did not. To find out why, she dove into the research and found the famous 1995 study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley that first documented the word gap.

To begin bridging the gap, she tested the use of LENA—a digital recorder that tracks words and conversational turns. A small randomized, controlled trial involving 26 families showed promising results. Parents increased talk with their children during the intervention, though the impacts had faded four months later when the researchers visited again.  A larger trial involving 200 families of toddlers will begin in January 2015 and will track participants for five years. “Do we impact school readiness? Hopefully we’ll be able to show that,” said Suskind.

Beyond school readiness, Fred Rogers stressed the importance of strong vocabulary for broader “life-readiness.”  Fred was very intentional in introducing children to new vocabulary. His longtime colleague, Hedda Sharapan, director of early childhood initiatives for the Fred Rogers Company, offers the reasons for introducing children to complex words here. The page leads with a great video of Fred explaining the word “soporific” for his young audience.

In the spirit of Fred, the Rogers Center’s focus in this area is on language that springs from the richness of a child’s developing self and supporting relationships.  It’s not just how many words, but the quality of those words and the relationships in each child’s life that makes a difference.

“It’s important for literacy advocates not to suggest or imply that the educational challenges facing low-income children are somehow rooted in ‘deficits’ within the children’s families,” said Junlei Li, professor of early learning at the Fred Rogers Center.  “We know scientifically that the social, economical, and environmental inequities play a far larger role.”

Li said that focus should be on how language enhances the relationships that are supporting and nurturing the child, both in terms of how a child relates to adults and peers, and to him or herself. “It’s wonderful that the LENA technology promotes turn-taking, for example,” Li said, “rather than mere word count, to enhance the type of serve-and-return interaction that drives any child’s development.”

If, like most of us, you don’t yet have access to LENA technology in your work with young children,  there are many other resources available to support early oral language development, including the Rogers Center’s Early Learning Environment™ (Ele), which is full of information and activities to support conversation. All Ele activities contain information about how to talk with children around digital media experiences.

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