Spoken language and words are critical to children’s early development. Hart and Ridley discussed this in their well-known study, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (Brookes Publishing, 1995) which examined the language experiences of young children in their homes. They had wanted to see where children get their vocabulary from (www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/spring2003/TheEarlyCatastrophe.pdf). They found that children’s vocabulary depends on how much their parents talk to them during the early years. According to the study, 86 to 98 percent of the words used by children are heard from their parents. Hart and Ridley also found that some children had heard 30 million more words than other children by 3 years old. This word gap continues to grow and affect academic achievement as the children get older.
The Thirty Million Words Initiative
Based on that study, the Thirty Million Words Initiative was started at the University of Chicago Medical School by Dr. Dana Suskind. It is “dedicated to harnessing the power of parent talk as a catalyst for change” (www.news.uchicago.edu/article/2014/04/03/pnc-taps-thirty-million-words-be-part-multimillion-dollar-language-development-in). In other words, the initiative’s purpose was to educate and train parents and caregivers to talk to their children in the best way possible. A few weeks ago, the Thirty Million Words Initiative received a grant to do a 5-year longitudinal study to compare the language development of the children whose parents participate in the study with a control group of children whose parents do not. Between 200 and 250 children from the age of 15 months through kindergarten age will be monitored for vocabulary development and school readiness.
Parent and Caregiver Talk
“It’s the disparity in early language environments of children…that has a profound impact on their IQ, school performance and future,” says Dr. Suskind in an interview (www.youtube.com/watch?v=7qESE2GeZxo). She adds that this gap is what the Thirty Million Words Initiative focuses on most. Because exposure to words and language in early childhood increases school readiness, learning and later academic achievement, an essential element of the initiative is parent and caregiver talk: learning how to talk to a child. This includes paying attention to what a child is focused on and trying to communicate, using descriptive words to increase the child’s vocabulary, trying to engage the child in conversation by drawing him or her out, responding to what is the child says, asking open-ended questions and reading aloud.
Judging by interviews of parents in the initiative, many parents are not aware that their children’s learning starts from the beginning and that they have a profound effect on their children’s future literacy and academic achievement. It is this perception that the initiative seeks to change along with teaching parents and care givers effective methods to use with children.
Do you have any ideas about how to stress to parents the importance of talking to their children from the earliest age? If so, please share.
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