Closing the ‘Word Gap’


We have all heard the phrase “at a loss for words.” For a growing number of American children, this loss is more than a momentary inability to articulate a thought.

According to a report published by the LENA Foundation, “The Power of Talk: Impact of Adult Talk, Conversational Turns, and TV During the Critical 0-4 Years of Child Development,” the more children are exposed to parental conversation (i.e. the more parents talk to their children) the greater a child’s cognitive abilities and educational achievements will be.

The authors of the report, Jill Gilkerson and Jeffrey A. Richards, observe; “[A] child’s rate of vocabulary growth, vocabulary use, and IQ score was more strongly related to the number of words a parent said per hour than any other variable including parents’ education or socioeconomic status.”

Much of the Power of Talk report is a confirmation of a classic study performed by Betty Hart and Todd Risely of the University of Kansas in 1995. Many of Hart and Risely’s findings have been substantiated by more recent research.

Among the things reconfirmed are the fact that parents of advanced children — children who scored consistently between the 90th and 99th percentiles on independent standard language assessments — spoke substantially more to those children than did parents of children who were not as advanced.

On average, parents estimate that they talk to their children more than they actually do. Both studies estimate that mothers account for 75 percent of all language training. Interestingly, mothers talked roughly 9 percent more to their daughters than to their sons. In general, parents talked more to their first-born than to their other children, particularly first-born males. Moreover, children of talkative parents were also talkative.

Predictably, the more television time in a child’s day, the lower his or her language ability scores tended to be. This finding alone should send a wakeup call to parents who lean on the “electronic babysitter.”

The effects of early exposure to increased parental talk were observed to be both significant and lasting. Children whose parents spoke to them more frequently during their first six months of life typically had greater language skills at one year and three years of age. Furthermore, this advanced level of skill translated into better educational outcomes.

Community leaders around the country are trying to apply the results of these studies to early childhood education. One of the more notable efforts is taking shape in Providence, RI. Angel Taveras, that town’s mayor, told a reporter from National Public Radio: “I recognized that we need to really start in the cradle.”

Beginning in February, with funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, Providence will launch “Providence Talks,” a program to combat the “word gap.” Providence will distribute small recording devices — essentially word pedometers — that tuck into the vest of a child’s clothing. These will automatically record and calculate the number of words spoken and the number of times a parent and child quickly ask and answer each other’s questions.

“We are very hopeful that we can be the laboratory here in Providence, and as we have success we can share it with the rest of the country,” Taveras says.

We all know that children come into this world as largely empty vessels. They are open to receive whatever we offer, but therein lies the rub: We have to offer something. We need not be great orators, just engaged and attentive. These studies prove it.