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Talking to Toddlers Can Close ‘Achievement Gap’

Closing the Language Skills Gap Among Children


From left, Anne Fernald, Maricela Garcia, and Libby Doggett discuss research, programs, and policies for closing the language skills gap among children. | Andrea Korte/AAAS

Programs and policies that encourage language development among very young children can boost the learning skills of low-income children, who have been found to lag behind children from high-income families who have had early exposure to more words, according to the speakers at a 28 September event at AAAS’ headquarters.

The panel discussion entitled “Closing the Language Skills Gap Among Children: It’s Never Too Soon to Start” was part of the Neuroscience and Society Series, a partnership between AAAS and the Dana Foundation, a philanthropic organization that supports brain research.

Research has identified an “achievement gap” in the test scores of children from families of low socioeconomic status, finding their scores are lower than those of their peers from wealthier families, said Anne Fernald, a psychologist at Stanford University.

Since 2013, more than half of public school children were considered to come from low-income families, Fernald said. “Helping poor kids succeed in schools now is by definition the mission of American public schools and thus a central responsibility for the American public. And it’s a responsibility we’re failing to meet,” she said.

Achievement gaps emerge well before children start school —and need to be tackled earlier, Fernald said. “The first few years of a child’s life are profoundly consequential for building a young mind,” she added.

A very young child’s fluency of understanding — “the ability to grab words as they go by” — rapidly improves in efficiency as he or she grows older. By the age of 24 months, children from low socioeconomic families are six months behind in their language efficiency and processing skills than their peers from high socioeconomic families, Fernald said. The more advantaged children have advanced vocabulary skills and that correlates to better cognitive abilities later on, she said.

Fernald’s research seeks to answer how the gap emerges. She has shown that children from low socioeconomic families tend to hear fewer words per hour than children from high socioeconomic families. The number of words — and the richness of those words — that a child hears is instrumental in building vocabulary as well as conceptual knowledge, she said.

Still, socioeconomic status is not destiny, Fernald said. Early intervention to improve the quantity and quality of words a young child hears can improve his or her language abilities, she said.

“It’s not lack of potential,” Maricela Garcia, the chief executive officer of Gads Hill Center, a community-based education organization in Chicago, agreed. “It is the environmental conditions that primarily hinder the ability of children to succeed.”

To improve language abilities for school readiness, Gads Hill serves about 300 children from low-income, Spanish-speaking, immigrant families through home-based childhood education programs.

The organization works closely with families through home visits to help parents take on the role as a child’s first teacher, Garcia said, encouraging “language-rich relationships” that build a child’s vocabulary and processing abilities. Even a few extra details in a sentence, like asking a child whether he or she would prefer to eat a round cookie or a square cookie, can familiarize a child with concepts and free up language processing abilities to learn new words.   

“Little by little, with that interaction that is not costly, it’s not intimidating, it is accessible to build their [child's] vocabulary,” Garcia said.

In addition to their focus on language and literacy – by creating a space in the home, however small, where children can access books and educational materials — Gads Hill also provides resources that help support family stability, Garcia noted.

Mothers in the program are mostly Mexican immigrants; though their culture prioritizes family support, the women often find themselves isolated from their extended family, Garcia said. Gads Hill runs groups to encourage mothers to socialize with others from their home state, interaction that also can help ease maternal depression, she said.

About 70% of parents in the program read to their children three to five days a week, “a tremendous accomplishment” considering the number of stressors that low-income parents face, Garcia said.

The federal government is supporting programs to close the language gap, said Libby Doggett, deputy assistant secretary for policy and early learning at the U.S. Department of Education.

The department’s Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program is providing $1.5 billion to support evidence-based programs like Gads Hill’s nationwide. Such “second-generation programs” are intended to help children and their families, Doggett said.

Additionally, the Department of Health and Human Services is holding the “Bridging the Word Gap Challenge” that will award $300,000 in prizes for innovative solutions that promote language development skills among children from low-income families, Doggett said.

Another effort, “Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge,” has awarded funding to 20 states for their plans to improve early childhood learning and development programs, she added.

“There are five years before children go to school, and in this country, we haven’t done as good a job as we need to in making use of those five years,” Doggett said.

Garcia added, “It’s not just an educational and social imperative. It is a moral imperative for our society to start investing in children.”

The final event in the 2016 Neuroscience and Society Series will be an exploration of phobias, their causes, and their treatment on 18 October.

[Associated image: aznongbri/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]