By the age of 4, children in low-income families have heard, on average, about 30 million fewer words than their wealthier counterparts. Thirty million. That figure is hard to fathom, but it’s impact is absolutely real. Researchers who study this disparity — referred to as the “word gap” (the term was coined in a 2004 Rice University study) — have found that it can set poor kids at a disadvantage for life. Before they even start school, they’ve fallen behind, with smaller vocabularies and lower potential reading skills, which lead to poorer academic performance; they start off so far behind, they can’t recover.
The word gap arises for a lot of reasons. For one thing, wealthier parents talk more with their babies than do poor parents, so the kids pick up more language. Rich parents also read to their kids more and watch less TV. Low-income parents, in contrast, tend to work longer hours than wealthier parents, leaving them with less time and energy to spend talking with or around their babies.
A new program in Rhode Island, Providence Talks, is trying to shrink the word gap. Its strategy is to study parent-child interactions by outfitting kids with a wearable recording device. The kids will wear the device twice a month for 12 to 16 hours at a time over three years. Experts at Providence Talks will then listen to the content of the recordings and pinpoint opportunities for parents to talk more with their children. Some critics have expressed privacy concerns for the families opting to use the recording devices, but still, many in Providence, including the mayor, Angel Taveras, are hopeful that it will make a difference in preparing low-income children for school. That’s a mission worth talking about.