It is a known fact that children from disadvantaged families and homes have access to larger, stronger and more complex vocabularies upon entry into kindergarten. As opposed to more economically secure families and backgrounds, lower income infants hear much fewer words per day by the age of three. This is called, “the word gap”.
Spoken words count as predictors of vocabulary and language comprehension and understanding despite previous vocabulary levels and maternal educational attainment. Some studies have shown that by the age of two, toddlers can be as much as six months behind their peers in vocabulary acquisition. This is a real problem, and it is finally being acknowledged and addressed in a number of cities.
The city of Providence, R.I., won a grant in the 2013 Mayor’s Challenge, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and was awarded $5 million for an innovative plan to eliminate or reduce this word gap in their city.
Preliminary results of this program, Providence Talks, was just released. Though the state and city have fewer residents, it faces challenges indicative of larger populated areas. The stats looked like this:
- 85% of Providence Public School District students were eligible for free or reduced lunch
- 66% of its students graduated high school in only four years, and
- barely 30% of children entering kindergarten demonstrated benchmark early literacy skills.
The city’s innovative program relied on a recording device called a “word pedometer” to monitor and improve spoken word counts in low-income homes. Originally paired families with in-home coaches to analyze the data, they peaked with large numbers of toddlers participating in the program and adopted other structures as well.
The family playgroup model facilitated conversations between parents about child development and strategies to increase engagement with children, while the facilitator analyzed each family’s recordings with the adults, before and after. Each visit, in the home or at the playgroup, a free book was provided for families to keep. Very smart!
The device tracked both spoken words and conversational turns-the number of times conversations changed from adult to child and back again. This also served as a measure of the give and take in a conversation. The device could record words in both Spanish and English, and could distinguish words spoken by adult, child, TV or other extraneous noises.
Reported this May, 60% of children in Providence Talks heard more words at the end of the program, than at the beginning. On average, the number of words toddlers heard in a day increased by 50 percent, and families beginning at the lower end of the spectrum, whose children heard fewer than 8,000 words a day when they began, less than half of the 15,000 words needed for healthy brain development, recorded strong gains of 45% in words recorded. Nearly 100% of the families reported being satisfied or highly satisfied with the program.
The takeaway from this innovative initiative is that engaging parents in conversation, not necessarily increasing their reading level, but conversation with learning and teaching their children in mind, equips them with stronger vocabulary usage and comprehension. Therefore, they will tend to use these newly acquired words in their everyday language, around their child, with their child or to their child. Much of language and vocabulary development is acquired vicariously-more so than learning or studying new words from a book.
Books also present opportunities to hear, learn and speak new words, invites quality time between parents and their young children, and encourages a general contextual definition to be found within the texts themselves. All of these benefit both parents and children and will enhance their spoken language and vocabulary development. Reading together encourages meaningful conversation, asking, answering, discovering, and sharing the beauty of language-based conversation. Besides, the cost of giving a few books to families now, outweighs the cost of remediation and other intervention strategies later, when children enter the public schools.
More cities should endeavor to accomplish that which a small state, and smaller city like Providence, Rhode Island, accomplished and help to bring all children and families into focus, as the center of all foundational early intervention program initiatives. Starting early is proactive, cost-effective and the most effective means to reducing all learning disparities, word and achievement gaps among children in school.
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