Floating out of poverty on a deep river of words

The Monitor's language columnist considers research that shows the real advantage middle-class parents give their children is that they talk to them.

Talk is cheap.

What a mercy. That means that even poor families can afford to provide their children something that is arguably key to lifting them out of poverty and into middle-class success: a torrent of words.

One of the biggest differences between poor families in America and their middle- and upper-class counterparts, research has shown, is the dearth of language in the former and the abundance of it in the latter. Specifically, a study done in Kansas City in the 1980s found that a middle-class child is likely to have heard, by age 3, 20 million more words than a poor child.

These are the words of conversations around the breakfast or dinner table, or on family outings. They are the words of "How did your day go, dear?" conversations children overhear between their parents. And most important, they are the words of books read aloud.

Usually this space considers individual words that are in the news or have caught the ear or eye of your faithful scribe. But right now I'm thinking of the value of language as a whole. Specifically, something I've picked up in my late-summer listening: the piece Ira Glass presented, as part of his public radio series "This American Life," on Geoffrey Canada's "Baby College."

Mr. Canada has been the driving force behind the Harlem Children's Zone, an ambitious program in New York City that seeks to lift young people out of poverty by getting them through high school and college.

The past few decades have seen an explosion of new knowledge of the way young children's minds develop. An understanding of the importance of reading aloud to and of conversing with children has made its way out of scientific circles into the middle-class mainstream. But not into Harlem.

"Places like Harlem are often left out of the science of youth development," Canada remarked in an interview with reporter Paul Tough.

This is the problem that Baby College, a program of parenting education, is meant to address. One of the most intense subjects covered in the series of nine Saturday sessions is disciplining children by means other than corporal punishment – by negotiation, by time-outs, or by talking with them.

This is a tough sell for advocates of "old-fashioned" discipline. But it illustrates a critical thing that language does for human beings – and not just poor kids in Harlem. Language helps us put some distance between ourselves and our powerful emotions. A child who can put a name to his or her feelings can begin to control them. And when parents encourage their children's language skills, it's not just about vocabulary building, but about larger life skills as well – self-control, motivation, a habit of openness to new ideas.

"I read to him every night ... even when I'm tired," one young mother, a graduate of Baby College, told Mr. Tough. "Even if it's the same book that I've read to him over and over."

A rising tide, they say, lifts all boats. The early signs from the Harlem Children's Zone are heartening. Already, the third-graders at the zone's charter school have tested above the New York City average reading score. And 95 percent of them score at grade level or above in math.

As Canada puts it, "It's much easier than people think."

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