Why all the chatter over chitchat with children?

Published on
October 23, 2014

Last Thursday, the White House hosted an event to call attention to “the word gap” between children of different socioeconomic backgrounds and announced a series of initiatives that aim to close it.

The new attention marks a growing awareness at the highest levels of policy that the language in which young kids are bathed on a daily basis can profoundly shape their development. That insight has received a fresh lift in recent years from new technologies and programs that make it easier for parents and researchers to assess how much spoken language kids are exposed to.

Yet even as the word gap squarely enters the policy crosshairs, new research presented at the very same White House event  complicates the quantity-is-king narrative by stressing that the quality of language matters quite a bit, too.

In a video posted in June, President Obama assailed the baleful effects of the word gap and trotted out a number that’s become a kind of foundational statistic in the policy conversation:

We know that right now during the first three years of life, a child born into a low-income family hears 30 million fewer words than a child born into a well-off family. By giving more of our kids access to high-quality pre-school and other early learning programs, and by helping parents get the tools they need to help their kids succeed, we can give those kids a better shot at the career they are capable of, and a life that will make us all better off.

Thirty million fewer words! That big number comes from a famous bit of research conducted by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley of the University of Kansas, published in their 1995 book, “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.” Starting when children were 7 to 9 months old, the pair observed 42 families for an hour a month over a period of two and a half years. “We had observed, recorded, and analyzed more than 1,300 hours of casual interactions between parents and their language-learning children,” they wrote, summarizing the project.

After six years of transcribing tapes and recording words, Hart and Risley found themselves staring at some gasp-worthy disparities:

Simply in words heard, the average child on welfare was having half as much experience per hour (616 words per hour) as the average working-class child (1,251 words per hour) and less than one-third that of the average child in a professional family (2,153 words per hour).

Not only did kids in middle and upper class families hear vastly more words and complicated language, they also heard many more encouragements than discouragements from their caregivers. All those differences added up, with a poorer kid hearing 30 million fewer words at home than a child from a professional family. The researchers found that the more words a child heard, the better his or her performance at school and on IQ tests.

That research has been around for nearly two decades. Why is the White House and its partners emphasizing this just now? The New York Times’ Tina Rosenberg wrote about the policy lag last year: “These findings should have created a policy whirlwind: Here was a revolutionary way to reduce inequities in school achievement that seemed actually possible.” The problem, according to Rosenberg, was that “there was no practical way to measure how much parents talk.” And without some form of measurement, it’s hard for parents to objectively gauge how much they’re gabbing with little Gaby.

But new technologies have changed that in over the past couple years. There might not be a Fitbit-for-words around the wrist of every child yet, but the LENA Research Foundation has spent $50 million to develop software and a hardware device that “has been called a talk pedometer, because it counts words and conversational turns,” the company says in a video.

The device has been adopted by the city of Providence, Rhode Island, which won a $5 million grant in March 2013 from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge. In the Providence Talks program, participating families are given the word-counting device along with bi-weekly home visits from trained coaches, who share information on how to boost their kids’ reading and language exposure. “In one pilot study, caretakers presented with data on their child’s vocabulary development increased their adult daily word count by 55 percent on average,” the program says.

Seeking to spur similar innovations, the White House last week announced prize money for developers who successfully build low-cost technologies that promote back-and-forth between young kids and parents. The administration is also supporting the creation of “word gap toolkits” and a partnership with the research-supported Reach Out and Read program, which will allow pediatricians to write a “prescription to the library.”

But is the policy establishment’s enthusiasm for seemingly simple, low-cost fixes overstressing kids’ word counts at the expense of word quality?

The New York Times reported last week on new research that suggests the way parents talk to children may be more important than the word tally itself:

A study presented on Thursday at a White House conference on ‘bridging the word gap’ found that among 2-year-olds from low-income families, quality interactions involving words — the use of shared symbols (‘Look, a dog!’); rituals (‘Want a bottle after your bath?’); and conversational fluency (‘Yes, that is a bus!’) — were a far better predictor of language skills at age 3 than any other factor, including the quantity of words a child heard.

Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University and lead author of the forthcoming study, tells the Times:

It’s not just about shoving words in. 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 not unusual for such caveats to get lost in the translation from research to policy. While leading researchers in the field have known for years that the manner and diversity of speech patterns matters, such nuance doesn’t always survive sound bytes such as “Bridge the word gap.” And in an age obsessed with fitness tracking and app-based solutions, the idea of “word pedometers” as a way to bridge language gaps and narrow class-based achievement gaps has a seductive, if misleading, simplicity. 

A closer look at the research suggests that while talking more to young kids is a good start, it’s really just the beginning of a complicated conversation.

Related posts:

Language Gap Between Rich and Poor Evident in Toddlers

Photop by David Goehring via Flickr.