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Falling behind before kindergarten: The 30 million word gap

A child from a low-income family hears an average of eight million fewer words per year than a child from a wealthier family. That’s more than 30 million fewer words by the time the child turns four.

This phenomenon is known as the 30 million word gap, and research suggests it is one of the key factors in the achievement gap between high- and low-income students.

And here’s the kicker: By the time a child enters kindergarten, this language gap may be irreversible.

Aneisha Newell, 24, lives on the South Side of Chicago, and she takes reading so seriously that she started reading to Alona, now three, while she was still in the womb. She would sit in the library reading out loud to her unborn daughter.

“The librarians would look at me like I'm crazy because I have a stack of twenty children’s books and they’re like ‘Um, there’s never any child with this girl, so what is she doing?’” Newell said.

Studies show that by age three, children from low-income backgrounds know half as many words as their high-income peers.

Newell and her daughter are participants in a new study at the University of Chicago called the Thirty Million Words Project, which hopes to narrow this word gap.

“We’ve really culled it down to what we call the three T's: tune in, talk more, and take turns,” project director Dr. Dana Suskind said.

So far 40 families have participated in the study, which began in September 2010. During the eight-week program, research assistants visit families in their homes weekly.

“We would sit down and have a talk about some important tips on getting my numbers up," Newell said. “And how we can convert little small activities that you would never think of, such as riding the bus and using that time to actually talk to your child and use more words during that time.”

Getting her numbers up—that is, the number of words she spoke to Alona every hour--was especially important to Aneisha. She’s competitive, which might explain how she broke the study’s record three times over the course of eight weeks.

One week, Aneisha spoke 2,800 words to Alona in one hour, almost three times the average.

“It's not easy, definitely not easy to do, to talk to a child,” Newell said. “Because sometimes you're just like, ‘shh okay that’s enough, I don't want to answer any more questions. It's peace time.’”

Northwestern University professor Amy Booth is a leading expert on early language learning. Booth—who is not involved with the 30 Million Word study—emphasizes that the word gap is not about bad parenting.

“Parents who are under economically stressed circumstances have less resources available to them,” Booth said. “They also have less time available to them, because they might be working multiple jobs, so they don’t have the luxury of spending the same amount of time with their children, interacting with them.”

There are ways to overcome these challenges. But there’s a small window in which to do it. Booth says those children who are behind when they enter kindergarten tend not to catch up.

“These early differences in language that children enter school with are long lasting. And there’s no reason for it. We can fix this, I really think we can fix this,” Booth said.

How do we fix it? That’s where it gets complicated.

Booth’s new research shows that children from low-income backgrounds might not even have the same strategies for learning new words as their high-income peers.

If that’s the case, Booth says, early intervention programs need to focus not only on teaching children new words, but also on teaching them how to learn new words.

“When you teach a child that hammer is called a hammer, you show them a hammer, right?” Booth said. “But, just showing them a hammer or showing them multiple different hammers isn't enough. You need to show them what that means, so demonstrate for them what a hammer does. Point out the relationship between the properties of the object and what it can do. And that will help the child hang on to that word and make it a lasting component of their vocabulary.”

Newell recently finished the Thirty Million Words program, and the study’s early results suggest that the strategies she and the other parents learned will help their children’s literacy and educational achievement in the long-run.

“I want her to go beyond what I did in school,” Newell said. “To go to better schools than I did, to become a better person than I am, and it's just as simple as that. She needs help to get there and she's not going to get there if I just sit around and look at walls all day.”

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