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Coaching parents on toddler talk to address low-income word gap

July 11, 2014 at 6:18 PM EDT
By age four, toddlers in low-income families hear 30 million fewer words than those in high-income families, according to researchers. As a result, these children tend to have smaller vocabularies and fall behind in reading. Special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters reports on one program in Providence, Rhode Island, that gets low-income parents talking more to their toddlers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: closing the education and language gap for kids from low-income families.

Special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters reports on one program trying to tackle the problem by talking more to toddlers.

JOHN TULENKO: In Providence, Rhode Island, 2.5-year-old Nylasia Jordan is part of a closely watched experiment in language development. To boost the number of words she hears, under her shirt she’s been wearing a small electronic word counter.

Called digital language processors, they have been given to some 55 toddlers whose families are on public assistance through a city program called Providence Talks.

Andrea Riquetti is the director.

ANDREA RIQUETTI, Providence Talks: And what we ask the families is that they put it inside of the pocket and then we ask the parents to put the vest on the child as soon as they wake up in the morning and then wear it throughout the day.

JOHN TULENKO: The recordings last 18 hours and take place about once a month.

While this technology is new, word counting has been done in other ways before, and the findings have been troubling.

James Morgan is a linguist at Brown University.

JAMES MORGAN, Brown University: Kids in low-income families just hear much less talk than do kids in higher-income families. Now, that’s come into the public consciousness. Even President Obama has mentioned this. It’s known as the 30 million word gap.

JOHN TULENKO: By age 4, researchers found, toddlers in low-income families hear 30 million fewer words than those in high-income families. The result, in cities like Providence, two-thirds of children enter kindergarten with poor vocabularies, and quickly fall behind in reading.

JAMES MORGAN: At young ages, there are small gaps in achievement and ability between children, and you see that gap growing and growing and growing over time. Early intervention is critical.

WOMAN: Hi Fred.


WOMAN: Hi, Nylasia. How are you?

JOHN TULENKO: Besides counting words, Providence is intervening with visits from social workers, like Courtney Soules.

COURTNEY SOULES, Social Worker: Nylasia is doing really good. She was very shy at the beginning when I first started working with her, and now he’s opened up a little bit more. She’s starting to do a little bit more conversation.

So we’re going to go over today the results of the recording that she had done.

JOHN TULENKO: Courtney’s brought with her various graphs, showing the number of words spoken to Nylasia.

COURTNEY SOULES: You can see she’s heard about 5,000 words in the day of her recording.

JOHN TULENKO: Five thousand words a day.


JOHN TULENKO: How does that compare?

COURTNEY SOULES: It’s very low. An average children — child would hear about 16,000.

There are going to be times that she might not be in the mood to talk.

JOHN TULENKO: The recordings have picked up a problem. Here on the child’s chart, a period of almost no conversation from around 10:00 in the morning until 4:00 in the afternoon.

COURTNEY SOULES: Then, if you turn, this one tells you all about her hourly TV.

JOHN TULENKO: The recording devices count TV time too.

COURTNEY SOULES: A lot between 10:00 and 4:00.

JOHN TULENKO: The challenge is not just to turn off the television, but to roughly triple the number of words Nylasia hears from her father, Freddie.

FREDDIE JORDAN: Everybody wants their kids to learn more, talk more, full words.

JOHN TULENKO: Does it help to see where you are on the graph?

FREDDIE JORDAN: Yes. The graphs help me understand how many words that she’s putting out, because all the — I never understood none of it. So…

Yes, she talk a lot.


FREDDIE JORDAN: But I don’t know what she talk about.


COURTNEY SOULES: Yes. She does a lot of babbling.

JOHN TULENKO: Freddie is a quiet guy.

COURTNEY SOULES: Yes, he is. He’s But he’s a great dad, and he wants to really get that education piece for his daughter.

JOHN TULENKO: What are you doing to help Freddie talk more?

COURTNEY SOULES: Modeling conversation, so, asking her questions, and giving her choices.

And have her point. And as she’s pointing at, say…

And also labeling, whether you’re taking a walk and that you’re pointing out birds and trees, and animals to when you are sitting in the house and that you’re reading a book together.

JOHN TULENKO: All that would be picked up by the digital language processor, except for one thing it will miss.

JAMES MORGAN: The device has no way of discerning one word from another. It has no idea which words are being used. It can only estimate the total count of words.

COURTNEY SOULES: With the recorder, I don’t hear a word. I don’t hear any language at all.

JOHN TULENKO: OK, you might if I try something out on you?


JOHN TULENKO: OK. So you’re counting words. If a parent said to their kid, damn, why do you always make such a mess?


JOHN TULENKO: That would register as nine words.


JOHN TULENKO: If I said, honey, you are cute, let’s clean you up, also nine words, but a fundamentally different message.


I think, right now, we’re not at that point, because that’s not really what our focus is. Our focus is just getting our children to hear more words. Yes, I would like them to hear more positive vs. negative, but I feel that it would maybe discourage parents if we actually heard what was being said.

JOHN TULENKO: But what parents say is as important as how much they say. And it’s been well-documented that middle- and high-income parents say far more words of praise than discouragement, while, in low-income families, it’s the other way around.

JAMES MORGAN: Kids who are constantly receiving a lot of prohibitions, it leads them to be less curious, less exploratory, more likely to end up with learned helplessness, so there are a wide variety of developmental outcomes, none of which are positive.

JOHN TULENKO: While the recording devices are blind to meaning, they do count the number of conversation turns, back-and-forth exchanges.

Program director Andrea Riquetti looks to that data for clues into what’s been said.

ANDREA RIQUETTI: When we see that there’s only adult — adult count talk, and there’s no turn-taking, you can certainly say, you don’t know what those words are.

But when you start seeing that there’s conversational turns, those conversational turns happen when good, positive, interactions are happening.

JOHN TULENKO: The program, supported by a private foundation, costs around $2,500 per family per year.

What’s the return? Parents of the four children Courtney Soules has been following started out saying between 5,000 and 7,000 words per day.

How many more words are they speaking to their children a year later?

COURTNEY SOULES: Anywhere between three and five.


COURTNEY SOULES: Yes, which is great.

JAMES MORGAN: Five hundred more words a day is probably not going to have a huge effect.

JOHN TULENKO: James Morgan of Brown University.

JAMES MORGAN: Which is not to say it will have no effect, but 500 words a day, the child is still far below the average. That’s probably not enough improvement.

JOHN TULENKO: In Morgan’s view, conversation coaching for low-income parents only goes so far because it fails to address their circumstances.

JAMES MORGAN: It’s tough to be a parent for anyone. But I think it’s particularly hard for low-income families. If you think about just the simple act of going to the grocery store, if you have to rely on public transportation and watch every penny, you don’t have a lot of energy. You don’t have a lot of time. It’s not hard to see why kids in low-income families are probably getting less interaction with their parents than are kids in higher-income families.

ANDREA RIQUETTI: We already know that this is changing behaviors in families. What we’re trying to do is let parents know that, regardless of their background, regardless of their experiences, they can give their children a better opportunity.

JOHN TULENKO: In the next three years, Providence plans to expand the program from 55 families to as many as 2,000.