Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Bridging Word Gaps

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Bridging Word Gaps

Article excerpt

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. 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.

Through Providence Talks, researchers and policy makers are likely to learn much more about whether pulling this language lever can really help level the academic playing field. For Providence, the needs are pressing: As Mayor Angel Taveras and schools Superintendent Susan Lusi explained in a video pitch for the program, only one in three children in the city enter school at the appropriate literacy benchmarks, and closing the word gap in disadvantaged families is seen as an efficient, early way to change that.

Certainly, a whole metropolis has yet to take on the word gap as an engine for major change. The notion itself hit the public consciousness only 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.

Ms. Hart and Mr. 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. …

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