On Closing the Word Gap

Posted On September 17, 2014 By | No Comments on On Closing the Word Gap

The Main Street Family Shelter playroom was renovated by the Champlain Valley Junior League in 2007. The Junior League also renovated the family room at the Firehouse Family Shelter in 2012.

With the support of trained staff, our Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB), and AmeriCorps Family Programming Specialist, COTS works with children and parents in the shelter to ensure success in school, promote children’s healthy social, emotional and physical development, and strengthen family relationships.  Volunteers provide evening respite care in our playroom, planning activities, help with homework and read stories with kids. The COTS Children’s Education Advocate works with schools and parents to make sure students are enrolled and have transportation to school. Through a partnership with Burlington School District, we link children to tutors who provide services in our shelters. We understand the importance of early-childhood education in a child’s life, especially one who experiences the immense stress of homelessness.

Why do we do this?

With our children’s programming, we take a long-term view on homeless prevention. The children raised in families with complex challenges, including homelessness and housing instability, are often at the greatest risk of becoming homeless in the future.

One way we address this is with a focus in our children’s programming on educational engagement for ages 0-3, a critical time in a child’s development. A child’s brain is particularly susceptible to environmental influence in the first three years of life.  From the ages of 0 to 3, a baby’s brain grows to 80% of its adult size and is twice as active as adults. Brain research has shown that the environment in which a child is raised directly affects the way the brain develops.

Why does this matter?

Let’s say it begins with a word.

Earlier this summer, President Obama presented a call to action urging Americans to join together in bridging the “word gap.”  He presented a proposal that will not only expand children’s vocabulary, but will aid in overall brain development—every time a parent or caregiver has a positive, engaging verbal interaction with a baby – whether it’s talking, singing, or reading – neural connections of all kinds are strengthened within the child’s rapidly growing brain.[1]

But let’s back up for a second.  What exactly is the word gap and what does it mean for low-income children?

In general, children living in poverty hear less than one third of the words heard by children in higher-income families. This has significant implications in the long run.[2]  From the time of conception to the first day of kindergarten, development proceeds at a faster pace exceeding that of any subsequent stage of life.[3] By the time kids reach the age of 4, the more affluent children have heard an incredible 32 million more words than low-income children. A vocabulary gap at age 4 can influence a child’s chances to succeed at age 14, 24, 34, and so on.[4] 

Lower-income children also hear more of what the organization Thirty Million Words (TMW) calls “command language,” which are phrases like “Be quiet,” “Stop that,” or “Put that down.”  High-stress situations like hunger, poverty, and homelessness leave less energy and time to focus on a positive reinforcement, which is vital in a child’s brain development.  Survival becomes the main mode of operation, not education.

Beyond expanding a child’s vocabulary, lots of positive feedback early on also affects one’s attitudes about oneself—for the better… A child is more likely to develop positive social and emotional skills and gain a sense of competence and confidence.[5] The immense differences in communication styles found along socio-economic lines are of far greater consequence than any parent could have imagined. The resulting disparities in vocabulary growth and language development are of great concern and prove the home does truly hold the key to early childhood success. Vocabulary development during the preschool years is related to later reading skills and school success in general.[6]  This becomes a cyclical problem when a child’s limited vocabulary prohibits them from excelling in school and they develop low self-esteem as a result.  Many children who struggle with poverty and unstable housing are left feeling unimportant, unintelligent, or worthless.

 So what can we do?

This is not an unsolvable problem, and it is not inherently linked to income.  Children of affluent parents who are uncommunicative didn’t do as well down the road, and the children of talkative low-income parents did very well.[7] There are specific actions that parents can take in the first few years of a child’s life to ensure long-term success. Here are some examples:

  1. Use new and interesting words in natural conversations.  Try this at meal times or when presenting a new toy.
  2. Encourage children to talk to one another.  Highlight the importance of asking questions, sharing and commenting on ideas.
  3. Use gestures and facial expressions when talking to a child to help make sense of a new word.
  4. Use everyday activities to introduce new words and concepts.  Eating pizza, for example, would be a great time to introduce the idea of “kneading dough.”
  5. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that television and other entertainment media should be avoided for children under the age of 2.  While TV does little to expand a child’s vocabulary, person-to-person interactions do a lot.   To illustrate this point, when children are learning puppetry with another person, they usually pick it up in 2-3 tries.  When children watch the exact same person, with the same instructions, on a screen, it takes 6-7 tries to successfully work the puppet.[8]

We know that ending poverty and homelessness is a long journey that can only be taken one step at a time.  For right now, let’s take it one word at a time.

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