Bridging the Word Gap, One Baby at a Time
By Shantel Meek, PhD, Policy Advisor for Early Childhood Development
Today, the White House released a video message by President Obama stressing the importance of learning and development in the earliest years of life and pledging his partnership in making sure every single child has access to adequate support, equal opportunity, and a fair shot to fulfill his or her dreams.
In particular, he discusses the “30 million word gap” — the early disparities between low- and higher- income children in the number of words they hear — and how high quality early learning experience can help us close that gap. The release of the President’s video is part of a campaign organized in partnership with Too Small to Fail, a joint initiative of the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation and Next Generation, to raise awareness of the importance of closing the word gap. Videos by Secretary Hillary Clinton, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and Cindy McCain, each focused on the positive influences that the early language environment, characterized by talking, reading, and singing to babies, can have on child outcomes, were also released.
As most of you know, the beginning years of a child’s life are critical for building the early foundation needed for success in school and later in life. During these years, children’s brains are developing rapidly, influenced by the richness of their experiences at home, in early learning settings, and elsewhere in the community. Unfortunately, not all children get the rich early learning experiences that facilitate school readiness and success later in life. In fact, disparities in cognitive, social, behavioral, and health outcomes, between lower-income children and their more affluent peers, are evident as early as 9 months of age and may grow over time (Halle et al., 2009).
Research has taught us that one important factor associated with disparities is the frequency and quality of adult-child interactions, both parent-child and teacher-child interactions. “Parent talk” — described as how often adults talk and engage in back and forth interactions with young children — is an especially important practice for “brain building” and reducing the earliest disparities. We also know that reading and singing are important contributors to children’s early language environments. A compelling and widely cited study found that in the first three years of life, children from low-income households heard roughly 30 million fewer words and engaged in fewer back-and-forth conversations than their higher-income peers (Hart & Risley, 2003). This gap in what is heard has consequences for what is learned. Studies show that children who experience this drought of language in their environment have vocabularies that are half the size of their peers, putting them at a great disadvantage, long before their first day of kindergarten.
But while vocabulary and early language development are critical, we know that the word gap has consequences far beyond the number of words a child knows. Each time a parent or caregiver talks, sings, or reads to — and shares a positive interaction with — a child, it builds and strengthens important connections in their malleable brain, which in turn, impacts learning and child development more broadly, influencing things like social-emotional and cognitive development. Babies do not soak up information from their environment on their own; rather, they learn through actively interacting with their environment, most importantly, the adults in their lives. Talking, singing, and reading to babies are three easy techniques that facilitate these fruitful interactions.
While much of the American public is aware that reading to children is an important activity that should be done regularly, not everyone knows the power of talk and positive back and forth interactions, especially with infants. Now is the perfect time to change that. Bridging the gap in baby-directed talk is a challenging but conquerable task. The good news is, talking, singing, and interacting with babies is free and reading is low cost. Equipped with awareness and the right information, every parent and teacher has the ability to communicate with their baby and provide a rich and stimulating early environment that will best equip them to succeed in school and realize their full potential.
The Obama Administration is committed to making sure that children have the supports and tools they need to thrive. Join us by helping raise awareness to bridge the word gap so that every child has the earliest possible start to a bright future. Read more about the Administration’s work on the word gap.