“Annette, you make sure you talk to that baby.” Annette is my mother, and the quote is from my step-grandmother, Eva. Neither one had ever heard of any language or literacy research, but they shared essential wisdom about how to raise children. My mother knew the importance not just of talking to her children, but of reading aloud to them. Having educated herself by reading the canon, she also had good taste in books.
The first book I can distinctly recall her reading to me was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I was six and we had recently moved. I don’t know how many weeks of bedtime reading it took, but I know that by the end I did not find my new room so scary. If you’re wondering: no, I did not understand every scene in the book. But that did not matter; I had a wonderful (if partially made up) storyline running in my mind and I enjoyed the time snuggled up to mom. And yes, there were hundreds of children’s books in the house—but, for the most part, I had to read them to myself.
All that Little Women did for me came to mind as I eagerly read Tina Rosenberg’s piece on yesterday’s New York Times Opinionater. She provides a must-read look at a new program designed to minimize the achievement gap between poor and privileged children. Called Providence Talks, it sounds very promising:
The city plans to begin enrolling families in January, 2014, and hopes to eventually reach about 2,000 new families each year, said Mayor Angel Taveras. It will most likely work with proven home-visitation programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership. The visitors will show poor families with very young children how to use the recorders, and ask them to record one 16-hour day each month.
Every month they will return to share information about the results and specific strategies for talking more: how do you tell your baby about your day? What’s the best way to read to your toddler? They will also talk about community resources, like read-aloud day at the library. And they will work with the family to set goals for next month. The city also hopes to recruit some of the mothers and fathers as peer educators.
Providence Talks is designed to prevent the 30-million word gap identified by Betty Hart and Todd Risley in their seminal study:
Our ambition was to record “everything” that went on in children’s homes—everything that was done by the children, to them, and around them…. We decided to start when the children were 7-9 months old so we would have time for the families to adapt to observation before the children actually began talking. We followed the children until they turned three years old…. Our final sample consisted of 42 families who remained in the study from beginning to end. From each of these families, we have almost 2 1/2 years or more of sequential monthly hour-long observations. On the basis of occupation, 13 of the families were upper socioeconomic status (SES), 10 were middle SES, 13 were lower SES, and six were on welfare.
After six years of transcribing and analyzing the results, they found astounding differences in toddlers’ opportunities to learn language. “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).” By the end of the study, the children in professional families had larger recorded vocabularies than the parents in the families on welfare (1,116 vs. 974 different words). Not surprisingly, the recorded vocabularies of the children in professional families were more than double that of the children in families on welfare (1,116 vs. 525 different words).
Even if these children ended up in equally high-quality preschools (which we know they don’t), the children with small vocabularies would struggle to understand their teachers, while their peers with large vocabularies would not only understand their teachers, but converse with and question them.
As E. D. Hirsch has explained, vocabulary grows bit by bit, through multiple exposures to words in multiple contexts. The more words you know, the more context you grasp and the more quickly you learn new words. The larger your early childhood vocabulary, the easier your path to college or a good career.
Those of us raised in language-rich homes were born on third—and more of us should realize that we did not hit a triple. Far too often, we mistake the lack of opportunity to learn for lack of ability to learn. The Matthew Effect is real—the more you know, the faster you learn. But instead of focusing on the power of today’s learning to accelerate tomorrow’s learning, when we encounter a “slow” child we too often think that slowness is immutable. Richard Nisbett, a prominent cognitive scientist, has explained that learning makes you smarter. His book Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count is well worth reading, but here’s a recent article he wrote that covers a lot of the same ground.
Appreciating that research, and my own good fortune (thanks mom!), I have high hopes for Providence Talks. But I have to say that it really must be followed by language-rich, knowledge-building preschool and K – 12 experiences. Children in wealthy families keep learning every day at school and at home, and their college-educated parents have the capacity to help with homework, construct enriching summer activities, buy hundreds of books and educational games, etc. If schools are to build on the strong start created by Providence Talks, they will have to be far more purposeful and organized in their efforts to increase students’ vocabularies, knowledge, and skills—especially in the early grades.