By Matthew Romano
The following article was featured in the March 2020 issue of The Campus.
30,000,000. That is how many fewer words children born into low-income or impoverished families will hear by the time of their third birthday as compared to their peers of higher socioeconomic status. In a 1995 study conducted by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, titled “The Early Catastrophe,” they studied the dinner conversations of 42 families, ranging in race, education, and socioeconomic status, for one hour, every month, for two and a half years. Their findings would launch what has been dubbed the “word gap” from the apathy of education research and policy and into public consciousness.
The “word gap” has since found support in neuroscience research (85% of a child’s brain develops in the first three years of life); been affirmed by several subsequent studies (with other estimates of the contested size of the gap); become the subject of many community initiatives (continue reading for more information); stimulated political attention (The Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail initiative and former President Barack Obama’s plead to #CloseTheWordGap); and has even found its way into mainstream pop-culture (in the colorfully poignant words of Yael Stone’s Orange is the New Black character Lorna Morello, “There are all these studies that say that if you don’t talk to the baby they end up, like, f**ked up by the time they’re five.”
Mrs. Morello hit the nail on the head with this one. It has been proven that children who fall victim to the word gap enter schooling with “severe delays in language processing, speech production, and vocabulary.” This is most concerning as it maps an exacerbation of the word gap to the reading gap, (one disproportionately affecting students of color, ELL’s, Students with Disabilities, and students with Free or Reduced-Price Lunch). The critical 3rd-grade reading gap has been touted as the biggest predictor of future success. In fact, one in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade does not graduate from high school on time.
When considering the word gap alongside Read Across America Day, which commenced in 2003 as a commemoration of Dr. Seuss’ birthday and celebration of the joys and benefits of reading, the two form an almost oxymoronic clash that epitomizes the struggle over the seeming unbridgeable word gap and the transformative power of literature and language, even and especially in the earliest ages. But reading and being read to is just one part of the equation. To conclude that the solution is simply reading would be a fallacious underestimation of the gravity of the situation. Since socioeconomic inequality does not exist in a vacuum, neither does the word gap. It is reasonable then that there exists no panacea to be found for this population of our youngest minds. Rather, this chronic pandemic in early education and child development requires a multifaceted approach with early intervention at all levels of society, from parents to politicians.
Parents are undeniably one of the most crucial cogs in a, yet to be perfected, wheel rolling towards a world without a word gap. The frequency, tone, quality, complexity, and length of a parent and child’s interactions are a primary determinant of the child’s future success. With this fact in mind, here are a few practices and approaches that parents can make to engage their young child in conversation. (Some are taken from The New Yorker’s Margaret Talbot’s inspirational article “The Talking Cure,” while others are based on anecdote and experience.)
- Narrate activities: Everyday activities like cooking, cleaning, shopping, traveling, etc. can be narrated to young children through word or song.
- Hit the first serve: In other words, provoke response from your child, even if it is incoherent, through questioning, repeating, counting, or Simon-Says & Monkey-See-Monkey-Do. Babbling, laughing, and even silent gesturing are all crucial to the speech development process.
- Read to your child: Kelsie McGrath, a senior Education student at CCNY, recalls listening to audiotapes, sounding out words, manual finger-pointing, high pitch sounds, intonation, questioning, and physical response, as part of her earliest experiences with reading and being read to by her mother, (who also happened to be a teacher).
Unfortunately, these practices are often extremely challenging, if not entirely unattainable, for the parents of the students who need it the most. Parents living below the poverty line often have to work multiple jobs just to provide basic needs for their children; they have to then cook dinner, eat, clean, bathe their children, and get them to bed on time. This grueling mundanity is what leads Richard Weissbourd to suggest, “Maybe what we have to do is come in and bring dinner and help with laundry and free up a parent to engage in more play with their child.”
The following are suggestions for teachers of all grade levels, devised with help from McGrath and Randy Brozen, a Pre-Kindergarten teacher and Professor of Childhood Education at City College.
Early Childhood Education:
- Engage children in conversations
- Connect words to physical objects
- Make the most of real-life experiential learning from any and all observations
- Communicate often with parents regarding student’s goals, needs, interests, and progress
- Parent-workshops to teach parents strategies to use at home with their child
- Rethink the literacy canon using diverse texts
- Synonym anchor-charts
- Direct instruction of vocabulary
- Lower-complexity entry-level text scaffolds
- Discussion and seminars in various formats including one-on-one, small group, and whole group
Providence Talks: The cornerstone of Talbot’s article. Founded in 2012 by former Providence Mayor, Angel Taveras, this organization used the newest technology (Language Environment Analysis or ‘LENA’ recorders), complemented by in-home counseling by expert caseworkers, to teach low-income parents how to manageably increase the frequency of conversations with their children.
The following are some examples of other community initiatives that have followed in Taveras’ footsteps using similar approaches:
- Thirty Million Words Initiative (University of Chicago)
- Too Small to Fail/Talking is Teaching (Clinton Foundation)
- Talk with Me Baby (Georgia)
- Words Count (Connecticut)
- Invest in the creation and sustenance of high-quality and affordable pre-school education program.
- Create an accessible and universal childcare option for working class and impoverished parents. Luckily, this initiative has gotten significant attention lately from some leading Democratic Presidential candidates including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has made it the centerpiece of her campaign.
- Increase and Redistribute public school Title 1 funds (funds earmarked for low-performing and low-income students). Another initiative that has garnered the support of Democratic Candidates with some calling for as much as a quadrupling of funds.