Children who know more words tend to do better in school, and that has some researchers wondering whether early language may offer a key to closing the achievement gap. That’s why Providence has launched Providence Talks, with millions of dollars from the Bloomberg Foundation. The program hopes to boost children’s vocabularies by teaching parents to be chattier with their babies and toddlers.
Data from a pilot study due out Monday show promise. Rhode Island Public Radio’s Elisabeth Harrison went on a home visit with a Providence Talks coach, to see how the program works.
Stephanie Pagliarini, a coach with Providence Talks, knocks on the back door of an apartment building a couple of miles west of downtown. Several children answer the door. They usher her into the living room, where she settles in cross-legged on the floor with two-year-old Khloe.
“Do you want to read?” asked Pagliarini.
“Alright, check this book out.”
While Pagliarini reads, Khloe watches closely. Her brown curls bob up and down with excitement. She wears a turquoise tank top and a matching turquoise skirt.
“Mr. Brown can moo, can you moo?” asked Pagliarini. “Moo,” said Khloe.
Khloe’s mom, Sirina Gill, smiles from a nearby couch. She has four older children, but she says Khloe’s her last, and she wanted to do things differently. One of her sons has developmental delays and it took her, she feels, too long to notice
“This made me really open my eyes and realize I need to communicate with her more, read to her more,” said Gill. “Everything.”
Some families naturally talk a lot to babies, but researchers have found that others don’t. And the difference can add up to as many as 30 million fewer words heard in the first three years of life, according to one study. It’s led some researchers to wonder whether this might have something to do with low test scores, especially for some low-income and minority students.
“It really all comes down to the brain and the fact that, number one, that learning begins at birth,” said Dana Suskind, who directs the 30 Million Word Initiative, a Chicago program similar to Providence Talks. She’s also on the board of Providence Talks.
Suskind likes to say that you don’t need a PhD to build a child’s vocabulary. You just need to spend some time reading and talking with your child. Even a baby too young to speak can soak up all those words.
“It sounds so intuitive, go talk more,” said Suskind. “But really how we talk and interact in our daily lives is a pretty ingrained thing, so the fact that you can move that is very exciting.”
But how do you move behavior so personal as how you talk to your child? And should you? Critics say that has the ring of cultural imperialism. Providence Talks Coach Stephanie Pagliarini says her approach is to focus on what parents already do, just encourage them to do it more and to narrate even the simplest daily task.
“I think it’s more about empowering them,” said Pagliarini. “Just knowing that the simplest change that they make in their life; that has a great impact on their child.”
Families in Providence Talks get to see the impact of their efforts first hand. Their children periodically wear a device called a word pedometer, which is about the size of a credit card. It counts the number of adult words the child hears and the number of conversations with an adult.
The word pedometer can also tell when the TV is on, and those words don’t count when coaches review the numbers with parents. Khloe’s mom, Sirina Gill, calls it a learning experience.
“She was watching TV a-lot,” said Gill. “And these numbers were so high, and she’s like um, I see there’s a lot of TV and I’m like umm, yeah.”
But a few months later Gill and her daughter Khloe are star pupils. TV time is down and reading has become a daily routine. At the end of their final Providence Talks coaching visit, Khloe jumps into mom’s lap with a book.
“Look mom! A duck,” the younger Gill exclaimed.
“Yes, there’s a duck,” said Gill.
“Want to read it?” Khloe asked.
This is exactly the kind of back and forth that makes coaches like Stephanie Pagliarini cheer. They’re also encouraged by data from the Providence Talks pilot, which showed families with the lowest word counts at the start gained the most: an average of nearly 4,000 words per day by the end of the program.
Whether they maintain those gains is something researchers will be watching. A professor at Brown University plans to follow the program as it grows to some 2,000 families. He’ll also study data from elementary schools when the Providence Talks children get to Kindergarten.
Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the coach from Providence Talks. Her married name is Stephanie Pagliarini. We apologize for the error.
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