Benefits of closing the word gap |

Benefits of closing the word gap

Staff Photo |

CHICAGO — It has been almost 20 years since researchers found that during their early development, children from low-income households hear an average of 30 million fewer words than those from higher socioeconomic status homes.

And over the last decade, social workers, home-visiting nurses, doctors and other caregivers to at-risk children have been preaching “talk to your baby” so parents can help eliminate the so-called “word gap.”

This is still good advice, but new research suggests that it is far more than just the quantity of words a baby or toddler hears that is important. It’s the quality of each interaction that makes a difference.

At a recent White House event on bridging the word gap, The New York Times reports, Temple University’s Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek presented research that carried some pointed advice: Parents must be very intentional and specific in their speech to infants and toddlers — a tall, and maybe bewildering, order for those who themselves weren’t brought up that way.

Hirsh-Pasek found that 2-year-olds from low-income families fared better when parents identified and capitalized on high-quality events in which to involve words. For instance, “the use of shared symbols (‘Look, a dog!’); rituals (‘Want a bottle after your bath?’); and conversational fluency (‘Yes, that is a bus!’)” than with commands such as “put that down.”

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According to Hirsh-Pasek, these interactions were a significantly better predictor of language skills at age 3 than any other factor, including the quantity of words a child heard. Subsequent studies have confirmed this conclusion.

“It’s not just about shoving words in,” Hirsh-Pasek told the Times. “It’s about having these fluid conversations around shared rituals and objects, like pretending to have morning coffee together or using the banana as a phone. That is the stuff from which language is made.”

It’s also the stuff that gives early-childhood education advocates the sweats.

No longer will it be enough to push the “talk more” solution. It appears as though attempting to teach parents how to direct speech to their children will be just the start. Now there will have to be forays into the thick weeds of trying to get parents to understand how to see the world through their child’s eyes.

This will be no small task.

In the years following the discovery of the language gap in 1995, its root causes were also uncovered. While it was known that parenting characteristics varied by socioeconomic status, it wasn’t until the core beliefs of parents at different income levels were understood that it became clear why the disparity exists.

In their research paper “Early Language Gaps, Sources and Solutions,” the authors Meredith L. Rowe of the University of Maryland, Dana Suskind of the University of Chicago and Erika Hoff of Florida Atlantic University cite long-standing research on parental beliefs of children’s cognitive abilities.

One potential predictor of how parents communicate with children, the authors write, “is their beliefs about whether their children’s abilities are fixed or malleable; that is, whether they are innately determined and relatively stable, or whether they can be improved with effort and exposure to positive environments. Parental beliefs about the general nature of intelligence have been shown to influence parental behavior during parent-child interactions, as well as their children’s self-beliefs and academic performance with older school-aged children.”

The bright side: The more that parents understand baby and toddler abilities, the better the verbal interactions.

In fact, Rowe, Suskind and Hoff cite research that has found “that parental knowledge of child development was more predictive of parent input than was mothers’ verbal IQ.”

Though new information about the quality of word interactions between parents and young children potentially brings more complexity to the already Herculean task of improving life’s chances for low-income children, it also represents an opportunity.

Instilling understanding of a young child’s potential could yield outcomes even more positive than we can imagine.

If this can be done — and given what research says about the transformative power of believing we can grow and learn at all ages and stages — a new beginning-of-life understanding could boost entire families in ways that far exceed mere language acquisition.

Esther Cepeda’s email address is Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

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