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The word gap is swallowing poor kids early. Can anything be done to close it?

The word gap is swallowing poor kids early. Can anything be done to close it?

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The idea that money begets advantages in a child’s education and development is a commonplace. But one of the most striking findings to emerge from research over the past decade is just how early more affluent kids start pulling away from their peers. It now seems that even preschool is much too late to intervene — poorer children already show measurable deficits by the age of 18 months.

The disparity is especially noticeable in language, where it’s commonly referred to as “the word gap." The basic idea is simple: The number of words spoken to a child maps out along class lines, with wealthier kids hearing far more words from their caregivers — 30 million according to one foundational study — in the first years of life. And since the amount of language heard turns out to be a strong predictor of things like reading ability and academic success, such kids have been found more likely to succeed later in life, even after controlling for other factors.

Anne Fernald, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and the keynote speaker Sunday for the 2016 National Fellowship, has been on the leading edge of this research, with studies that have revised our understanding of how early these class-based gaps take root. Her remarkable findings have in turn led her to design and test promising new interventions that seek to bridge the word divide among children. It’s work that hasn’t gone unnoticed, garnering front-page attention from The New York Times as well as mentions in the Guardian and New Yorker.

But as Fernald is the first to point out, her work stands on the shoulders of the seminal work done by child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley of the University of Kansas. Their research, published in 1995, recorded and analyzed more than 1,300 hours of conversations in the homes of 42 families with newborns, representing the full economic spectrum. All those hours of tape disclosed some startling findings: Children from families on welfare heard about 616 words per hour, while kids in upper-class families heard an average of 2,153 words per hour. Likewise, the kids from wealthier homes had vocabularies twice as large as the kids on welfare by age 3, with corresponding IQ gaps of nearly 40 points. Hart and Risley famously estimated that a child from a wealthier home hears 30 million more words by age 3 than a poor child.

Striking as those findings may be, Hart and Risley’s research languished for over a decade, according to Fernald, as researchers paid far more attention to syntax. She credits journalist Paul Tough with popularizing Hart and Risley’s findings in The New York Times Magazine, and lavishly praises the author of books such as “Helping Children Succeed” for shining a light on the importance of children’s earliest experiences and even influencing her own work.

While Hart and Risley found pronounced language gaps in place by age 3, Fernald wanted to find out just how early the disparity takes root. To do so, her team tracked children from different socioeconomic backgrounds from 18 to 24 months of age. In the lab, researchers measured how long it took the child to correctly pick out pictures associated with verbal prompts such as “doggie” or “birdie.” The results were stark. Fernald found that differences in language processing speed were already in place by 18 months of age; by 24 months, the more affluent kids were already six months ahead of their peers in language skills. That gap is unlikely to be closed by subsequent schooling, “given that differences among children in trajectories of language growth established by 3 years of age tend to persist and are predictive of later school success or failure,” as the 2013 study notes.

Similar findings have been noted in other studies. By using word counters that fit in a pouch on an infant’s clothes, Fernald’s lab has measured how many words are voiced in low-income Spanish-speaking families in San Jose. Even within the same socioeconomic group, the amount of language spoken in the home correlated with brain processing speed, Fernald found.

“Babies whose parents engage them more with language get smarter faster,” she said. “Brains are built; they are not born.”

While the research seems ominous, the idea that brains are built through language gives children’s advocates ground for optimism, since it opens the door for interventions that encourage parents to engage in more quality speech with their kids. In east San Jose, Fernald is testing an intervention called Habla Conmigo, in which parents of 18-month-olds attend a series of classes that teach them ways to talk more with their kids while also strengthening their executive function skills. In preliminary results, mothers in the program doubled the number of words spoken in their homes compared with the control group, and their children’s vocabularies reflected that additional speech as well, according to Fernald. Other programs, such as Rhode Island’s Providence Talks, similarly encourage parents to speak more to their kids.

Yet one of the points that can get lost in discussions of word counts and “the talking cure” is that the type of language spoken at home matters a great deal as well. “Quantity is correlated with quality,” Fernald said. “Those parents who engage more tend to talk more richly. and that’s what’s really doing the work.”

Poorer children of course tend to get less quantity and quality. And it’s a deficit that can be hard to overcome later in life. As Fernald’s research suggests, the race to succeed begins far earlier than previously suspected. Disparities are laid down early. But it doesn't have to be that way. Teaching parents how to talk and interact more with their babies may be one of the most practicable ways we’ve found yet to even up the starting line.

[Photo by Donnie Ray Jones via Flickr.]

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