I have discussed this topic on occasion, but will revisit it today. The topic is: the word gap between rich and poor children. It turns out that the children of wealthier parents are exposed to far more words than are the children of poor parents. Thus, the state of Georgia has initiated a program to encourage poor women to speak to their babies more often and in more depth.
The Atlantic reports:
Research suggests that poor children hear about 600 words per hour, while affluent children hear 2,000. By age 4, a poor child has a listening vocabulary of about 3,000 words, while a wealthier child wields a 20,000-word listening vocabulary. So it’s no surprise that poor children tend to enter kindergarten already behind their wealthier peers. But it’s not just the poverty that holds them back—it’s the lack of words. In fact, the single-best predictor of a child’s academic success is not parental education or socioeconomic status, but rather the quality and quantity of the words that a baby hears during his or her first three years.
The human brain develops better when exposed to more words earlier. The most important stages of development occur are before the age of 3:
Those early years are critical. By age three, 85 percent of neural connections are formed, meaning it’s difficult for a child who has heard few words to catch up to his peers once he enters the school system.
This produces a 30 million word gap, separating the children of the wealthy from the children of the poor. The state of Georgia is trying to reduce it:
Called simply “Talk With Me Baby,” the program is a multifaceted attempt to fill the massive 30 million-word gap between children from lower- and upper-income families by making sure that babies from all backgrounds hear lots of words.
The woman in charge of the program in Georgia explains:
“This is pure biology,” Brenda Fitzgerald, Georgia’s Health Commissioner and the woman in charge of state public-health programs, said during an interview at her Atlanta office. “Which is why it’s a public-health initiative.”
Children with more words do better in school. Adults who were good students and earned a college degree have longer life expectancies. They are at a lower risk for hypertension, depression, and sleep problems. They are less likely to be smokers and to be obese.
“There is no way we can separate health and education,” said Jennifer Stapel-Wax, director of infant and toddler clinical research operations at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, and the self-described “chief cheerleader” for the effort.
It is also likely that women from more affluent homes are more intelligent and more verbal. Thus, that the correlation relates to educational achievement as much as it does to disparate incomes.
We do not know, from the information provided in the article, how many of the parents of poor children are married, single or divorced. We do not know how many children live in their homes and what help they have with childcare. And we do not know anything about whether some children are born with higher or lower IQs… as a matter of genetic inheritance.
And yet, it is surely a good idea for the government to spend some time and money trying to teach poor women to speak to their children more. On the other hand, if these women have more limited vocabularies, then clearly their children will still lag by some measures. A child’s listening vocabulary will necessarily be smaller if his mother has a smaller vocabulary.
Finally, no one is discussing an issue that I brought up on this blog. Namely, that when an intelligent, well-educated woman spends more time outside of the home on her job, thereby delegating child care to a woman who is less intelligent and who is less garrulous, how does that affect her children? If she delegates child care to her husband, and if, as very often happens, her husband is less talkative than she is, what does that do to the child’s development? Does the theory of the word gap tell us that these women are depriving their children of something that only they can provide?
Here, quality time does not make up for the loss of quantity time, for missing out on a quantity of words. But surely the quality of the speech also matters. Experiments have shown that television and the radio are not adequate substitutes for conversational speech or for reading to a child. One assumes that a mother who holds an intelligent conversation with a baby does better than does a mother who might speak a lot of words but has a more limited vocabulary and does not have very much to say.