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?