Studies have shown that by age 3, children from lower income families hear far fewer words than those from higher incomes. This “word gap” is a problem because a word-rich environment is key to a foundation of learning, early language acquisition and future reading skills. According to the Suncoast Campaign for Grade Level Reading, reading at grade level by 3rd grade is an important predictor of long-term academic success.
Ellen Galinsky -- author of “Mind in the Making” and consultant for a free app called Vroom that helps parents spur early learning -- shares some insight into the word gap that may affect 21 percent of Kids in the US.
What drives you about the study on the word gap?
The sample was small, but one of the main points was about quality of language. We learned it’s not about drowning kids in words. It’s the back and forth, meaningful conversations that are important. Even if baby can’t talk yet, do this. When you point out a car outside the window, it’s not “car, car, car,” it’s asking “what’s that?”
“It’s a taxi.”
“What color is it?”
We’re always talking about extending the conversation, regardless of age.
Are parents surprised to learn about the gap?
Some parents are. The cultural assumption about learning is that babies don’t learn language until they can talk. And often learning is seen as memorizing words and numbers, but it’s giving those things meaning that counts.
How does Vroom help close the word gap?
We’re all busy and many parents are overwhelmed. Time and money can be scarce. So what Vroom does is get families in the moment; during feeding, getting dressed, waiting in line or during a ride.
That’s why in building the Vroom app, one of the rules was that the activities had to require no time, tools or money.
Income doesn’t have to be a determinant in language acquisition. When you don’t have enough money or when you live in a neighborhood where you feel less safe or you’re not sure where the next meal is coming, there are still people who really connect with their kids.
Other than using tools like the Vroom app, what are some best practices parents and caregivers can adopt to close the word gap?
Playing is learning.
Ask kids questions throughout the day: “How many steps do you think it would take to get to the door?” Estimation is really valuable in learning. You’re building on their curiosity and also enjoying the mystery of learning.
Also, talk to babies.
Talking in something we call “parentese” is found to be helpful. It’s when you talk in a sing-song voice that includes real words, and repeat what baby says back to them, that’s important. Being bidirectional is key. It helps babies process sounds. Remember, it’s not pouring knowledge into an empty vessel, it’s building connections.
Also, using gestures is a huge part of language. When adults use gestures, it helps kids make sense of their world by diversifying communication.
One misconception is infants can learn through media but they really learn best in the context of relationships when something is meaningful.
Does having a second language in the household slow down word acquisition?
Learning a second language is good for cognitive flexibility.
Some people who don’t speak English as a first language will hold on speaking with their children since they assume that their broken English might harm their learning. But it’s good to speak the language you’re most comfortable with with your child. More language is a good thing. And if there aren’t reading materials around in your first language, make up stories or look at pictures and talk about them.