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How Do You Educate Kids Before Their Education Begins? Talk (a Lot)

Current research suggests that young kids who hear a lot of words do better in school—and the effects start very early.

Preschooler Jennifer Lopez looks forward to stringing beads during an activity of the Head Start program at Erie Neighborhood House on the west side of Chicago, Wednesday, February 27, 2013.   Photo: Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune

The Tribune editorial page has been soliciting ideas for a “new Plan of Chicago,” taking its inspiration from Daniel Burnham. Its focus early on has been lamentations for the children of Chicago, what public schools face…

Why should this matter to all Chicagoans? Because crime, joblessness, poverty — many of this city’s ills — take root at home and fester in the classroom. Parents who don’t get their children ready for school pass them to teachers who can’t compensate for all that those kids missed at home.

…and what they can’t do in the absence of supportive families.

For a child, that can make all the difference in the world. It can mean poverty. It can invite abuse or neglect. It can hinder learning. It can mean getting on a wrong track that is very hard to escape. A bad start is often a lifelong impediment.

Largely missing, as it often is in the debate, is what happens before school, from birth to pre-K. The U.S. compares badly to other developed countries in early childhood education; family-leave coverage is also poor, particularly for low-income parents. And when we look at how to improve the lives and outcomes of American children, the focus tends to be on how to improve what we do, rather than considering what we don’t.

It’s a shame, because Chicago is a hotbed of early-childhood research. And one promising intervention being studied is intuitively simple: the more words children hear very early on, the better prepared for school they’ll be when they grow up.

That’s the theory behind Dr. Dana Suskind’s Thirty Million Words project, developed by the University of Chicago cochlear-implant surgeon:

Suskind worked with her University of Chicago colleagues to launch 30 Million Words, a program that sends research assistants to the homes of at-risk children for 13 weeks and educates their parents about the importance of engaging their children in an ongoing dialogue — and, equally important, offers them the tools to do so.

Researchers work with the parents to develop weekly word goals, with an ongoing emphasis on “the three Ts: Tune in, talk more, take turns,” Suskind says.

“Babies aren’t born smart,” she says. “They’re made smart. And how are they made smart? Your words.”

The 30-million number is based on research by two Kansas University academics, Betty Hart and Todd Risley: “The disparity was staggering. Children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour. Working-class children heard 1,200 words per hour, and children from professional families heard 2,100 words. By age 3, a poor child would have heard 30 million fewer words in his home environment than a child from a professional family.” Earlier this year, Suskind published her research on a small-scale pilot study that provided intervention and feedback for caregivers based on the 30-million words principle; the results were promising, increasing words per hour from about 1,200 to about 1,600.

And as Suskind was studying her intervention model, the New York Times’s Motoko Rich reports that Stanford psychologist Anne Fernald was finding that the language gap can show itself extremely early: “at 18 months children from wealthier homes could identify pictures of simple words they knew — “dog” or “ball” — much faster than children from low-income families. By age 2, the study found, affluent children had learned 30 percent more words in the intervening months than the children from low-income homes.”

This is just one small piece of the puzzle; there’s a lot of promising work coming out of the city, which has been in many ways a pioneer, on early childhood intervention, that I plan to highlight in the coming weeks. But it’s worth considering when issues about local education come up: what to do with a gap when families and universal education aren’t there.


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