Counting The Words Poor Children Hear

Poor children suffer from the effects not only of income inequality, the scholar E.D. Hirsch has written, but also “vocabulary inequality”—a lack of exposure to words that leaves them at a disadvantage in school, in the workplace and in life. Linguist Ben Zimmer writes in the Boston Globe about one city’s bold attempt to remedy vocabulary inequality:

“Ever since a small but groundbreaking study in 1995, it’s been accepted wisdom that a child’s academic success is directly related to the amount of talk the child hears from adults in the first few years of life. Children in higher-income families hear more language than those in lower-income families; this disparity, the theory runs, leads to a ‘word gap’ that puts poorer children at a disadvantage when they enter school.

Now, the city of Providence is set to put this theory to the test through new high-tech means, in the much larger setting of a city population—and then try to narrow the word gap for children in real time. Earlier this month, the city won the $5 million grand prize in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, based on its proposal for a project called Providence Talks. The plan is to equip low-income children with recording devices that calculate how many words they hear, and then coach parents on how to boost their children’s language exposure.”

This is the first time an entire city has taken on the “word gap” as an engine for major change, Zimmer notes:

“The notion itself only hit the public consciousness in 1995, when University of Kansas child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley released a study based on a decade of painstaking research. Over a period covering the first three years of children’s lives, the team recorded 42 families for an hour every month, capturing every word spoken between parents and children. Then they created and analyzed 30,000 pages of transcripts and followed up on the children’s academic progress.

Hart and Risley found a significant disparity when comparing the vocabulary exposure of six families on welfare to 13 ‘professional class’ families: children in the former group heard 616 words per hour, while children in the latter heard 2,153 words per hour. Extrapolating those results to 14-hour days, they estimated that underprivileged children were hearing about 30 million fewer words through the age of 3 than their upper-income counterparts.

The ’30 million word gap’ became a central talking point in early childhood education, despite the small sample size in Hart and Risley’s study (a limit that was inevitable, given the painstaking manual analysis required).

But in 2006, technology arrived that made possible a new kind of research: LENA (short for Language ENvironmental Analysis), developed by researchers based in Boulder, Colo. With LENA, researchers record children for 12-hour periods by attaching small devices to their clothes. Once all the data is collected, algorithmic methods make it possible to come up with reliable word counts while screening out background noise, including television, and non-word sounds.

The LENA Natural Language Study, published in 2008, crunched through 32,000 hours of data from 329 participants and found that the Hart and Risley findings held up, though they found that the earlier research had overestimated the number of words used in a rich language environment (LENA found 20,000 words a day, as opposed to the previous estimate of 30,000). LENA researchers also found that the more parents talked directly to their children, the better the children performed in language assessment tests.

The next step was intervention. A pilot study found that monthly meetings with parents could boost children’s levels of word exposure by 55 percent.” (Read more here.)

I find this completely fascinating, and also somewhat troubling. Recording parents’ speech to their children in order to show them that they are not talking to their children “enough” seems potentially rather intrusive and paternalistic.

And yet, as Zimmer notes, “LENA’s own research has found that parents have difficulty judging how much they talk to their children, so hard data ends up being valuable.” Certainly the intervention stage, in which parents are coached on how to speak more effectively to children, seems beneficial (as long as the sessions are voluntary).

What do you think? Is this a great idea to improve children’s school readiness and life chances, or something more troubling?

4 Responses to “Counting The Words Poor Children Hear”

  1. Lonny Fennis says:

    This is really fascinating! I was wondering though, if only the parents count as ‘word- providers’ or if other adults can contribute as well. That would make your first worry probably less so. If only the parents can participate I would like to know the reasons behind that reasoning. To me it seems that every word counts, no matter who spoke it!

  2. Annemarie Harris says:

    I commend the effort to create a strategy that specifically addresses the 32 million word gap. We’ve been throwing out this study/statistic as a policy/awareness-building message for years, but haven’t made any effort to design strategies that actually address it (unless we believe that high quality preschool &/or home visitation are the catch-all for all poverty/education challenges). I don’t know whether it will be successful. I think the first & foremost challenge will be ensuring that these devices are actually used by the children (& their parents), rather than sitting idle on dressers, under the bed, in the toilet(!), etc. The next challenge will be ensuring that parents actually participate in coaching and then implement the advice/strategies. Whether or not this strategy endures, I strongly believe that technology & innovation has the ability to address the word gap challenge ($5 million simply scratches the surface). We need more efforts (that use technology) to come into the marketplace so that we can find the best & mosts scalable strategies. But we should definitely celebrate that an early childhood literacy strategy actually WON a broad-based funding competition! It’s a very good sign of things to come.

  3. Uzma says:

    This IS good news. There shouldn’t be any difference in education between a child born to rich parents and the one born to the less privileged. I’d like to see how this experiment turns out.

  4. Joshua Myerson says:

    I echo Annemarie’s comment from above, which called attention to at least one challenge being that of “ensuring that parents actually participate in coaching and then implement the advice/strategies” received in order to increase the amount of talk time children are exposed to.

    I suspect the differences between words heard between the economic classes is based largely on lifestyle, meaning that affecting a change in the amount people communicate with young children is not based on desire or interest in doing so but rather on time and monetary resources. Groups with more of these resources can more easily keep a parent, nanny, or older person at home and/or send children to clubs or centers, thus exposing those children to more language.

    So what is the next step now that we know more language exposure is going to help children in school and beyond? Keeping a parent at home, keeping children after school, or sending them to clubs seem to be actions that would increase the number of words children are exposed to.

    It is going to be a tough debate getting people to buy into government and community spending on such programs and facilities when other problems and poverty abound. However, this type of informal education – exposure to more oral language – may be a catalyst in reducing economical gaps. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

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