In the early 1990s, a team of researchers decided to follow about 40 volunteer families — some poor, some middle class, some rich — during the first three years of their new children's lives. Every month, the researchers recorded an hour of sound from the families' homes. Later in the lab, the team listened back and painstakingly tallied up the total number of words spoken in each household.
What they found came to be known as the "word gap."
It turned out, by the age of 3, children born into low-income families heard roughly 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers.
Research since then has revealed that the "word gap" factors into a compounding achievement gap between the poor and the better-off in school and life. The "word gap" remains as wide today, and new research from Stanford University found an intellectual processing gap appearing as early as 18 months.
That study led to some increased calls for universal preschool, but some say that's not early enough.
"I recognized that we need to really start in the cradle," says Angel Taveras, mayor of Providence, R.I.
He says two-thirds of kindergarteners in the city show up on their first day already behind national literacy benchmarks.
Next month, with funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, Taveras' city will launch "Providence Talks," a new effort to take on the "word gap." Providence will distribute small recording devices — essentially word pedometers — that tuck into the vest of a child's clothing. These will automatically record and calculate the number of words spoken and the number of times a parent and child quickly ask and answer each other's questions.
"We are very hopeful that we can be the laboratory here in Providence, and as we have success we can share it with the rest of the country," Taveras says.
The idea was inspired in part by a research program called 30 Million Words in Chicago.
Aneisha Newell says that program taught her to talk to her young daughter in new ways. She says she never realized bath time — with colors and shapes of bubbles and toys to describe — could be a teachable moment. She ended up breaking the program's record for the most words spoken.
And then there was the moment her daughter — not yet 3 years old — used the word 'ridiculous' correctly. Newell was amazed.
"It was just something that made me feel good as a parent," she says.
Progress like Newell's stems from a special kind of parent-child interaction, says Dana Suskind, a professor of surgery and pediatrics at the University of Chicago, who started the 30 Million Words program.
"We can't just have people saying 30 million times 'stop it!' It's got to be much more," she says.
The parent should "tune in" to what the child is looking at, talk about it and ask questions that can create a sort of "serve and return" between parent and child.
Suskind says that research shows overhearing a cell phone conversation or sitting in front of a television program doesn't cut it when it comes to building a child's brain.
She and others hope to expand their style of training to day care centers and beyond. She says she hopes to eventually have it be routine for parents to learn about this at their newborn's first hearing screening. She wants them to understand that their talk matters well before their baby starts talking back.
JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden. Rachel Martin is away.
It's been nearly two decades since we learned about the word gap. That young children of well-off professionals hear millions more words than those from poor families. And researchers found this gives them an advantage in school and life that compounds over time. Today, despite years of focus and effort, the word gap is just as wide.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Humpty Dumpty sat on a...
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Wall.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Humpty Dumpty a great...
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Fall.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Those words rhyme.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Rhyme.
LUDDEN: It's rhyming time at Appletree Early Learning in Washington, D.C. Some of the 3- and 4-year-olds at this publicly funded pre-school already lag far behind.
RYAN TAURIAINEN: So usually these are students who can only use simple, one word answers.
LUDDEN: Ryan Tauriainen is the principal here.
TAURIAINEN: They have a very limited vocabulary so they might describe all animals as a dog, because they don't know any other word for any other animal. Which is compared to some students who come in speaking in paragraphs, and being able to describe things at length.
LUDDEN: Appletree President Jack McCarthy says invariably, the children without many words have parents without much income.
JACK MCCARTHTY: On a daily basis, these children hear what's called command language, short sentences: Do this, do that, don't do this, don't do that. Whereas a more advantaged child will hear: I had granola for breakfast today and wasn't that really crunchy and sweet and interesting.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: You can find milk with the other dairy products like yogurt. And now, what letter do you think that the word milk start with? (unintelligible), Harley.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Ooh, A is for - Anaya, what letter do you think Mmmilk starts with...
LUDDEN: Appletree's well-trained teachers aim to compensate, to give the kids what they're missing at home.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Milk starts with M. Can you help me write the letter M? All right, we're going to draw a line up, slant right down, slant right up, line down for the letter M. What letter is that?
LUDDEN: McCarthy says some children show dramatic improvement in vocabulary. But is it enough to close the achievement gap? The first study that established the word gap found a 30 million word difference by age 3. New research out of Stanford University finds a disparity even earlier - by 18 months. That's boosted calls for universal pre-K. But some have decided that's not early enough.
MAYOR ANGEL TAVERAS: I realized we really need to start in the cradle and that is what this is about; starting in the cradle and working with the child's first teacher - a parent.
LUDDEN: Angel Taveras is the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, where, he says, two-thirds of kindergartners show up already behind on national literacy benchmarks. Next month, with funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, Providence will launch a new effort to take on the word gap, called Providence Talks.
TAVERAS: We're working with a small group of families and we are providing them a very small recording device that will record. It's a word pedometer...
LUDDEN: It counts the words that are spoken.
TAVERAS: It counts the words. And we're then able to produce data and share it with parents to let them know how they are doing.
LUDDEN: The recorder tucks into a vest the child wears. It automatically calculates the number of words spoken, and notes interactions - when a parent or child asks a question and the other responds.
TAVERAS: We're very hopeful that we can be the laboratory here in Providence and as we have success we can share it with the rest of the country.
LUDDEN: Providence got the idea from a small research program in Chicago. Aneisha Newell took part in that. She says engaging in conversation with her child was not something she learned well growing up.
ANEISHA NEWELL: I don't remember having that time where my parents or my foster parents actually would sit down and read to me or, you know, have fun bath time or that kind of thing. So it was important to me for my kids to feel that.
LUDDEN: Using a recorder, Newell says she learned to talk to her nearly 3-year-old daughter in different ways, and at times she wouldn't have thought to before. In fact, she ended up breaking the research program record for most words spoken. Newell remembers one triumphant moment with her daughter.
NEWELL: She said ridiculous. And it was just like, really, that this 3-year-old, and I'm...
LUDDEN: She said ridiculous?
NEWELL: She said ridiculous. She did use it in the right way. She said: Mommy, this is ridiculous.
NEWELL: So it was just something that made me feel good as a parent.
LUDDEN: The program that helped Newell is called 30 Million Words. It was started by Dana Suskind of the University of Chicago.
DANA SUSKIND: We have a core behavioral strategy called the Three Ts. The Three Ts are: tune in, talk more and take turns. You can tell a parent, look, go to grocery store and talk about everything. But that's very different than saying tune into the bananas that the child is focused on. Talk about it, engage him. Talk about the banana that you ate earlier this morning for breakfast. It's the serve and return that people always talk about.
What we're doing with talking about it is 30 Million Words, is we're getting people's attention. But we can't just have people saying 30 million times stop it. It's got to be much more. So...
LUDDEN: Or what about really long conversations on the cell phone? Does that not count?
LUDDEN: It's a lot of words.
SUSKIND: That doesn't work. Neither does TV - it's so sad. You know, there have been studies where children learn how to use a puppet. And they have an individual adult showing them how to learn to use the puppet. And I think they learn in one or two tries after watching it. And they have that same person who's been videoed doing the same thing and it takes six times for the child to watch it on TV. There's just something sticky about human-to-human.
LUDDEN: Suskind is expanding this kind of training to daycare centers. But Ann O'Leary, of the non-profit Next Generation, wants to spread the word on the magic of talk even wider. She's been working with what she hopes can be a powerful messenger, the American Academy of Pediatrics.
ANN O'LEARY: How can we make sure that when pediatrician have first visits with a family - the well baby checkup - that we're providing info to parents about early reading, about early talk.
LUDDEN: Early enough, she says to head off the word gap. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.