The Power of Words

There was recently a fascinating story on NPR about closing the achievement gap between high and low-income children by focusing on parent-infant interactions. It may seem odd that child development specialists have turned their attention to infants. Isn't this too young to worry about achievement gaps that are seen many years later?

What researchers have found is that starting earlier gives low-income children a jump start for later academic achievement. Twenty or thirty years ago, interventions for low-income children often did not begin until they were of preschool age (usually about 4 years old). While some of these interventions helped to a certain degree, researchers began to see that many 4 year olds of low-income backgrounds were already trailing behind other children in vocabulary.

After further investigation, researchers found that one of the primary reasons for this disparity was due to the amount of time parents spend talking to their young children. In a 1995 study, researchers found that low-income children heard about 600 words per hour, compared to 2,100 words per hour in a higher-income family. It became clear to researchers that exposure to language was one of the key factors to help close the achievement gap they were seeing in these children years later.

Now many child interventions for underprivileged children focus on coaching parents on how to interact with their infants to use more language. This usually includes skills such as labeling objects, narrating behavior that parents are doing, and helping the child become engaged with objects or toys. These seemingly simple interventions have shown fairly dramatic results. In one study, such interventions resulted in a 50% increase in the amount of narration parents used with their infants. These interventions were also associated with a decrease in the amount of TV seen by low-income infants.

These results are very promising but we do not know yet what, if any, long term effects they will have. These types of interventions alone, of course, will not solve all the challenges that underprivileged children face, but it is a good start. The thing that I found amazing about this story was how something parents take for granted (talking to your infant) can have such a huge impact on their development. In the midst of daily parenting duties, it's easy to forget how much these little interactions with your child matter. This was a great reminder for me that talking and interacting with my child is my primary "task" as a parent and that the little moments really add up to a lifetime of development.

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