Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

How to end the word gap? Cities invest big in baby talk.

Low-income kids start school with far fewer words than affluent peers. Communities are trying a simple idea to bridge the word gap: teach parents to talk with their babies.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Providence Talks home visitor Jasmine Davis (l.) talks with Annette Sanchez about her one-year-old son Kenyiel's progress, as daughter Ariella looks on on April 17, 2017, in Providence, R.I. Providence Talks is a city-wide program that helps parents establish language-rich environments at home.

When Jasmine Davis arrives at Annette Sanchez’s apartment in Providence, the first thing she does is quietly turn off the big screen TV. She’s there to talk, and not just to Ms. Sanchez, but to her 1-year-old son, Kenyiel.

Next, Ms. Davis entices Kenyiel to relinquish his pacifier and he erupts into a trumpet sputter of delight, “duh-duh-duh – dooaa – dada!”

Davis smiles back at him. “There’s the voice I came to hear,” she says.

Chatting with infants and toddlers doesn’t come naturally to many adults. That’s why Ms. Davis spends her days visiting parents of young children, modeling how to engage pre-verbal children in back-and-forth conversation. On this visit, she’s also brought Ms. Sanchez a pack of diapers, a developmental assessment to fill out together, and some tips on how to get into the Roger Williams Zoo and Providence Children’s Museum for free.

Sanchez, a grocery clerk, is one of some 1,300 moms who have enrolled their children in Providence Talks, a citywide program here in Rhode Island aimed at helping parents foster language-rich environments at home.

Winner of the Bloomberg Philanthropies 2013 Mayors Challenge, Providence Talks has invested $5 million in bridging the so-called word gap, the notion that children from low-income families arrive in kindergarten classrooms having heard, by one measure, some 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers.

That disparity in early language exposure has been found to stifle students’ ability to learn to read and sets the stage for a major educational divergence that persists throughout their school careers.

Providence Talks uses a three-pronged approach to bridge that gap: home visits with new parents, playgroups in community spaces, and professional development programming for early childhood educators.

To Sanchez, Davis’s home visits and the new ways that Davis has taught her to interact with her son are priceless. She says the idea that she could communicate with her son, long before he would be able to speak, resonated with her very early on.

“Even when he was first born,” Sanchez marvels, “the way he would look at me when I would speak to him or sing to him, he would just look at me with this face like he knew I was his mom.”

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Providence Talks home visitor Jasmine Davis (l.) talks with Annette Sanchez about her one-year-old son Kenyiel's progress, as daughter Ariella looks on on April 17, 2017, in Providence, R.I. Providence Talks is a city-wide program that helps parents establish language-rich environments at home.

At a loss for words

For families accustomed to dinnertime chats, the idea of teaching parents to talk with their children may seem strange. But for many parents, conversing with infants and toddlers who are not yet able to talk back is less intuitive.

And for some immigrant parents, for instance, the notion of engaging children in conversation is something of a foreign concept, says Jeannette Mancilla-Martinez, an associate professor of literacy instruction at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., whose research focuses on low-income and minority families.

“One [style of parenting] is not better than the other, but, that said, when you go to a US school there are certain cultural norms that are embedded in the system,” Professor Mancilla-Martinez says. “We have to make sure that parents are prepared to prepare their children for those kinds of interactions.”

The idea of the word gap was first posited in a 1995 book titled “Meaningful Differences” by researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley of the University of Kansas.

Since then, many have questioned the 30-million-word figure, as it was based on extrapolations from a study of just 42 families. But the idea behind it, and the correlation to later disparities in educational success is “very real,” says Susan Neuman, a specialist in early literacy development at New York University and the former assistant secretary of Education under George W. Bush.

“Generally we say that children who come to school in kindergarten from poor areas will have a vocabulary of about 5,000 words; middle-class children will have 15,000 words in their lexicon,” Professor Neuman says. “And that gap will increase over time. So vocabulary is the strongest predictor of kindergarten achievement, elementary achievement, and even high school achievement.”

In recent years, a network of community researchers across the country have banded together in search of ways to bridge the word gap. And what many communities have latched onto is a deceptively simple strategy: Teach parents to talk with their children.

From Oakland, Calif., to Jacksonville, Fla., researchers, nurses, librarians, early intervention specialists, and even mobile app developers are spreading the message that parents are children’s first teachers, and that education begins at birth.

Fostering a movement

In Rhode Island, Providence Talks has emerged as a pioneering program in a nascent movement. Then-Mayor Angel Taveras was one of the first mayors to throw political weight behind this kind of parent-education program.

“Having a mayor get behind the whole idea of the word gap was a really new way to spark interest in an initiative like this,” says Carta of the Bridging the Word Gap Research Network. “What we have really seen across the country since is different mayors becoming the champions in their communities to address the word gap.”

Since, the idea has morphed into something of a movement, with governments, philanthropy organizations, and private businesses heeding the call for innovative measures to deliver the message that talking with infants and toddlers is vital to their development.

  • In Georgia, the entire state has invested in a program called Talk with Me Baby, which leverages nurses and pediatricians to teach future foster parents, early childhood providers, and parents enrolled in Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Nutrition Programs about “language nutrition” and the value of bathing children in a steady stream of “loving words.”
  • In Tulsa, Okla., the George Kaiser Family Foundation has partnered with local businesses, churches, and urban radio stations to deliver public service announcements that encourage parents to capitalize on everyday interactions to maximize learning.
  • In Little Rock, Ark., the for-profit, cause-related business Words to Grow On is developing a research-based, audio coaching app, Time 2 Talk 2 Baby, aimed at encouraging more talking, reading, singing, and conversational exchanges. The company plans to offer the app for free, with in-app purchases, by the end of 2017.

Making do

“I’ve never met a parent who says ‘I really don’t want to help my child be successful in school,’ ” says Mancilla-Martinez.

The reality is that no one – not even researchers or master teachers – really knows the “best” way to teach language. “We’re still building our understanding of how to best approach language instruction and make it age appropriate,” Mancilla-Martinez says.

Today’s infants, however, cannot wait decades for researchers to tease out all the causative links between early language exposure and later academic success. In the meantime, parent-education programs based on empirical evidence can begin to set the stage for students to land in school on more equal footing, says Judith Carta, a senior scientist in the Institute for Life Span Studies at the University of Kansas.

It’s about changing how people think about what their role is in helping children become better language learners,” says Professor Carta, who currently co-directs the National Bridging the Word Gap Research Network.

And teaching parents to spend more time reading and engaging in conversation with their children is likely to have additional benefits that extend beyond language development into social and emotional health, adds Carta.

Once children get to school, Communication skills “can either be a strength or an obstacle in terms of forming relationships with peers,” Carta says. “When children don’t have the words that they need to express frustration and their feelings they are more likely to be aggressive and to engage in challenging behavior.”

The role of schools

Of course, parents are not children’s only teachers. Schools and teachers play a major role in students’ language development. The problem is, the gap seen in kindergarten tends to widen after kids start school, especially in low-income communities where funding is scarce.

“Students are likely to go from a poor home to a poor school, where a teacher does very little vocabulary work,” says Neuman, the former assistant secretary of Education under former President George W. Bush.

Researchers who spend time in schools say that language development, including vocabulary and reading comprehension, has taken a back seat to skills that are more easily tested. Neuman reports seeing this in many schools in New York City and Mancilla-Martinez says she has seen the same in Nashville.

“Schools are so focused on word reading skills – can students read the word?” Mancilla-Martinez says. “That is fundamental for reading, but it is not meaning making.”

Being able to sound out and identify individual words are vital building blocks for reading, but comprehension is more difficult to teach. Children who enter school with a robust vocabulary and who have already spent time not just being read to, but talking about books, are better equipped to take that next step.

The role of technology

Many communities are turning to apps as a low-cost way to reach a broad number of parents. As smartphones have become increasingly ubiquitous, even among low-income families, apps have emerged as an unobtrusive way to connect with parents and to supplement more resource-heavy programs like home visits.

The US Health Resources & Services Administration’s “Bridging the Word Gap Challenge” has awarded $25,000 each to four semi-finalist organizations working to develop mobile apps that target the word gap. A fifth semi-finalist has created a wearable device, VersaMe, that functions like a word pedometer, counting the number of words a child hears.

Providence Talks employs a similar, and slightly more robust, digital language processing tool produced by the LENA Research Foundation in Boulder, Colo. Home visitors provide parents with visualizations of the number of words spoken by adults and the child on a given day.

Danielle Crowley, an infant teacher who has worn a LENA device in her classroom as part of the Providence Talks professional development program for early childhood educators, has found those reports to be helpful in shaping her teaching.

A former public school teacher with a master’s degree in education, Ms. Crowley was no stranger to the importance of talking to children. But she learned from the LENA reports that she and her co-teachers spent an awful lot of time talking to the children in the classroom rather than talking with them.

“I feel like I’m talking all day long,” she says. “It definitely opened our eyes to how much we are talking and how much we are communicating.”

Now she focuses on asking more open-ended questions. The babies in her classroom may not be able to answer with complete words, but for them, babbling is their way of talking and giving them opportunities to do so in a responsive way helps build the foundation for later conversational skills.

Crowley says that’s something she knew in theory, but participation in Providence Talks helped her to understand how to put that into practice.

Parents aren’t the only ones who need a little help now and then.

[Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the first reporting of the word gap by researchers Hart and Risley. It was in the 1995 book "Meaningful Differences." The researchers later summarized their findings for a 2003 journal article "The Early Catastrophe."]

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