Urban Wire Building momentum to bridge the word gap
Justin Milner
Display Date

Media Name: shutterstock_119489962.jpg

Before I became a dad 17 months ago, I had little idea about the importance of “parent talk” for infants. Sure, I knew I would be changing diapers (my wife was in charge of inputs, I was in charge of outputs). And I was committed to making sure my daughter became a world-class soccer player. But talking to an infant who communicated mainly through gurgles and gas emissions? What good could this babytalking possibly do?

The surprising answer: quite a lot.

What research tells us about babytalk

It turns out that the impact of parental talk and verbal interaction with children—or the lack thereof—can be measured remarkably early. Studies estimate that children from low-income backgrounds may be exposed to anywhere from 20 million to 30 million fewer words than children from professional families by the time they turn four years of age. The difference amounts to thousands of words per day.

Researchers have also found significant differences in language processing for children as young as 18 months. Toddlers from poor families appear to lag behind their peers from more well-off families in word recognition and vocabulary, and by the time children turn two, the development gap can be as large as six months.

But the differences start even earlier. Newborns whose mothers had played a recording of a nonsense word (“tatata”) during the last few months of pregnancy demonstrated recognition of the sounds via differences in brain imaging. Babies from different countries have even been shown to cry with the accents of their mother country.

The point is that language development starts much earlier than we previously thought, and disparities in parent talk and, consequently, children’s early experiences can have effects on major child outcomes down the road. With nearly one in three American children entering kindergarten lacking the skills they need to read, and two in three children not reading at grade level by the end of third grade, the problem affects the public health of our nation as well as our prospects for future prosperity.

Where policy comes in

Policymakers are starting to pay attention, and recent focus on the “word gap” has spanned across the political divide. A range of prominent leaders, from President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Senator Bill Frist and Cindy McCain, recently released videos touting the importance of early language development.

In the fall, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, with support from the Urban Institute and Too Small To Fail, will host an event aimed at increasing public awareness of the importance of talking to young children and focusing on solutions encouraging parent talk. In the meantime, policymakers and researchers should focus on the range of platforms available to reach parents and caregivers of young children in multiple arenas, like:

  • Doctor’s offices. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently released new guidelines that call for pediatric providers to promote early literacy from infancy to kindergarten. Doctors are now urged to prescribe caregiver-child reading time as a part of healthy child development. Public and private health systems would be well served to publicize the new recommendations and provide support to pediatricians looking to implement.
  • WIC offices. Staff working through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) can introduce the concept of “language nutrition” alongside food nutrition. Georgia’s Talk To Me Baby program will employ this strategy, alongside complementary efforts from the health system and pediatric nurses.
  • Early care settings. Many children spend their daytime hours in child care. Child care staff and providers have daily opportunities to provide language-building experiences for children in their care. Interventions to build their knowledge and skills for quality engagement offer another route to improve language development.

Developing solutions and measuring success

Researchers should also explore cheaper, scalable supports to help parents and caregivers—especially those from poor backgrounds—interact more frequently and with more quality with their children at home. While increased caregiver interaction costs nothing, facilitating such behavior change has been challenging, especially for families under economic and other types of duress. One potential solution involves tech-based interventions, such as parent-child interactive apps on tablets and phones, text message reminders (see Text4Baby), or a FitBit-inspired device that can count the number of words children hear per day.

This is a nascent area of research. In order to figure out what works, we will need to invest in both the innovation and the evaluation. To that end, a recent grant opportunity from the Maternal and Child Health Bureau points in the right direction by providing funding to establish a research network aimed at bridging the word gap. More funding across different agencies and different platforms will be required to continue to build the evidence base in the future.

Early on, I sometimes felt silly talking to my daughter about the weather and the plants and about how our cat loved her too while she stared at me or nodded off to sleep. But I can already see the payoff every time her face lights up as she yells “ca!” at our furry Himalayan (I assume the “t” is on its way). I now realize that I am helping her build a language foundation that will be critical for all of her future language development.

Photo from Shutterstock.

Research Areas Children and youth
Tags Poverty Child support Family structure Child care Children's health and development Economic well-being Head Start and elementary education Early childhood education Kids in context Families with low incomes Child care and early childhood education
Policy Centers Research to Action Lab