The 30 million word gap is getting a lot of media attention these days. It's about time. Earlier this year, the municipality in Providence initiated a program to target the 'word gap' in Rhode Island. The Providence Talks project is modeled after Chicago's Thirty-Million Words Project, and both initiatives were inspired by a renowned study conducted in two decades ago by Betty Hart and Todd Risley. Hart & Risley's aptly named "The Early Catastrophe" study revealed that some children heard 30 million fewer words by their third birthdays than others. This "word gap" in the first 36 months of life was found to be correlated to the achievement gap later in life.
While there is speculation on the causality of the correlation, the critical point remains clear: kids who have a head start stay ahead of the game throughout their academic careers. Parents can contribute to bridging the word gap by actively engaging their infants and toddlers in literacy-boosting interactions.
1. Read, read, read
As teachers, we tell our students to read anything and everything. As parents, we often limit ourselves to our home libraries; however, making an effort to show children that reading exists beyond the book covers illustrates that literacy is a vital component in our day-to-day lives. For example, pause during an afternoon walk to point out the words STOP or OPEN on signs along the way. Or, pick up a pamphet or point to a poster at the pediatrician's office. Not only does this expose our young children to new terminology they may not regularly hear, but it also shows them a variety of different media forms -- which make for excellent teaching points as they grow older.
Even infants and toddlers know practice makes perfect. The excitement and anticipation in the eyes of my one-year old as we read The Very Hungry Caterpillar for the gazillionth time never ceases to amaze me. Children enjoy repetitive texts because it helps them understand story structure, and they are able to predict the words that will follow with each page turn. My toddler is excited to finish each page with 'he was still hungry' -- it makes him feel more successful and therefore leads to increased participation during reading time. These are all productive steps towards active listening, introducing phonemic awareness, and building vocabulary.
3. Recount and retell
Most parents have a bedtime routine that often include bath, massage, bedtime stories and lullabies. Consider adding a recap of the day's events, or personal narrative component, to conversations with baby at the end of the day. Research shows that mother-child conversations in the first three years correlate with school-readiness. Using the Wh questions (who, what, where, why, and when) when retelling the day's events help our children build a comprehensive lexicon. In addition, the practised ability to recount and retell will be a valuable skill in the early school years.
4. Rhyme and sing
Interactive games like Itsy Bitsy Spider and This Little Piggy are engaging for babies because they involve body movements that coincide with rhythmic patterns in words. Songs like Head and Shoulders introduce names of body parts, Old McDonald teaches children the names of animals and the sounds they make, and The Hokey Pokey helps discriminate left versus right. Much like repetitive texts, these rhymes captivate the minds of young minds, increase participation, promote active listening, and introduce novel vocabulary.
5. Real World Experiences
Building vocabulary means increasing the number and quality of already existing neuronal connections. For example, show your baby that Old McDonald's farm is more than just a song by taking a trip to a local farm or petting zoo. Experiential learning helps children to better understand the world through the use of all five senses; this, in turn, opens up numerous opportunities for discussion. How does the sheep's wool feel? Can you hear the sound the ducks are making? Such questions facilitate text-to-world connections and add deeper meaning to their already existing body of knowledge.
The daunting task of raising a child who will one day grow to be a successful and productive member of society is a task that every parent takes on from the moment the little bundle of joy is placed in our arms. Municipality projects that promote early literacy and target gaps in learning are certainly commendable; however, countless early childhood research all indicate that literacy development starts at home during the first three years. Making small changes in our daily interactions with our children ensures they have a solid foundation for teachers to build on in later years. Closing the word gap today may mean a non-existent achievement gap tomorrow.
Anjali Joshi is an Elementary school teacher with a specialist in Human Behaviour Psychology from the University of Toronto. She is a regular contributor at Bay Area Parent, MasalaMommas, and blogs at The Adventures of a New Mom.