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Bridging the Word Gap

By Shantel E. Meek, PhD, Policy Advisor for Early Childhood Development

President Barack Obama

“We know that right now during the first three years of life, a child born into a low-income family hears 30 million fewer words than a child born into a well-off family. By giving more of our kids access to high-quality pre-school and other early learning programs, and by helping parents get the tools they need to help their kids succeed, we can give those kids a better shot at the career they are capable of, and a life that will make us all better off.”

-President Obama

Last week, the Obama Administration, in partnership with Too Small to Fail and the Urban Institute, hosted a group of federal, state and local policy makers, philanthropists, researchers and advocates at the White House for a day of shared learning on “Bridging the Word Gap.” The convening is a follow-up to the President’s call to action on early education and the word gap earlier this year.

The President and his Administration are not alone in their interest in the subject. A growing coalition across the political spectrum is devoting attention and action to children’s earliest experiences. The driving catalyst is a combination of the growing literature on developmental and brain science that has permeated public policy and public knowledge, a stubborn achievement gap, and socioeconomic-driven disparities appearing in children much earlier than any American can stomach. 

So what does the word gap have to do with brain development and subsequent socioeconomic disparities? A lot. The word gap technically refers to the difference in the quantity of words a high versus low-income child hears in the first few years of life. But the word gap is really much more than that. It is a proxy for the varying levels of enriching or quality experiences children have in their early years. In this case, the quantity of words children hear is correlated with the quality of interactions they are experiencing. We know from almost two decades of research that early experiences shape brain development. If we can bridge this word gap — both in quantity and quality — and provide more children with the foundational early experiences they need to be astute learners in preschool, kindergarten and beyond, we may be able to make more progress on the stubborn achievement gap and ensuing socioeconomic disparities. But we can’t get there unless we start early — really early.

While much warranted attention has been placed on ensuring that all children have access to high quality preschool, the conversation at the White House last week was largely about what happens before preschool, in the first few years of life. Lead researchers in the field, like Dr. Anne Fernald of Stanford University reinforced the point that learning starts at birth and disparities between lower- and higher income children start early, in infancy and toddlerhood, in part due to the language environment young children are exposed to. Dr. Kathy Hirsh Pasek of Temple University presented data that show that the “conversational duet” (i.e. repeated back-and-forth interaction between caregivers and young children), is the most critical component of the language environment. Her findings demonstrate that toddlers who engaged in more “conversational duets” with their caretakers fare better in language measures down the road, regardless of their families’ income level. Dr. Dana Suskind of the University of Chicago drove home the point of the day in stating that: “Babies aren’t born smart. They’re made smart.” In all, the conversation focused on how, as a community, we can ensure that caregivers have the tools they need to “bridge the word gap,” be “brain builders,” and provide their infants and toddlers with enriching early experiences that foster cognitive and social-emotional development and truly prepare kids for preschool, kindergarten and school beyond.

At the convening, the Obama Administration highlighted several efforts to do just that. A coordinated effort by HHS, ED, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to bridge the word gap and enhance young children’s earliest experiences was unveiled, including:

  • An HHS-sponsored challenge to innovators to build low-cost technologies that help caregivers engage in more high-quality interactions with their young children
  • An HHS-funded research network to help connect academics from multiple disciplines to contribute to word gap solutions
  • A Word Gap Toolkit, jointly developed by HHS, ED, and Too Small to Fail, that will include a suite of resources for parents, caregivers, and teachers on enriching the language environment of our youngest children
  • A $2 million investment by ED, HHS, and philanthropic partners on a National Academies of Science study focused on how to best support young children who are dual and English language learners
  • A Parent Early Learning Toolkit to help parents identify high-quality early learning programs, funded by ED and co-developed with HHS
  • A “prescription to the library” that provides a new way for pediatricians to encourage reading and library use, as well as a deeper partnership to address the word gap that will likely include over 150 libraries and 75 museums, co-administered by IMLS and Reach Out and Read

Last week’s event at the White House focused all eyes, ears and brains on babies and helped us move toward ensuring that our youngest children, particularly infants and toddlers, have a diverse coalition of champions behind them. Our policies, investments, and attention as a country should be tightly aligned with what the science says: that brain development and learning start on day one. If we want to ensure that America remains competitive in an ever-evolving world economy, we must make sure that all of our children, starting at birth, have access to the high quality early learning experiences that will “bridge the gap” and set them up for a bright future.

Check out the White House Fact Sheet to learn more about the Administration’s efforts to “bridge the word gap.”

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