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Closing The Achievement Gap With Baby Talk

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Closing The Achievement Gap With Baby Talk

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Closing The Achievement Gap With Baby Talk

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

So more can be better for kids, and apparently that is also true with language and words. NPR's Alix Spiegel reports that some old research has led to new programs focused on words.

ALIX SPIEGEL: In the mid-1960s, Betty Hart was a graduate student working at a preschool in Kansas City. The preschool was for poor kids - really poor kids. Many came from troubled housing projects nearby.

But Hart was determined not to see their limitations, only their potential. See Hart's job was to teach these underprivileged kids how to speak like the children of her professors at the University of Kansas. The idea was that this would help them to go on to academic success.

So for years, she and a professor at the university named Todd Risley worked tirelessly to expand the vocabularies of these 4-year-olds.

Ms. BETTY HART: We tried everything we knew without success. We couldn't do it. We tried everything. Everything we could.

SPIEGEL: The problem, they realized, was that they weren't getting to the kids early enough. Which led to this question.

Ms. HART: Since age four was too late, when was early enough?

SPIEGEL: To find out, Hart and Risley embarked on an unbelievably ambitious research project. They decided they would follow 40 families - poor, rich and in-between - for the first three years of their child's life. Literally, record and count the words that were said to these children.

Ms. HART: We really wanted to know everything that was happening to the kids. Who talked to the child, how long, how often, how many different words were said. How many total words were said. And how many past-tense verbs and what people actually do all day long.

Unidentified Child: (unintelligible)

Unidentified Woman: What's that - so how does that song go?

Unidentified Child: (Singing) (unintelligible)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) (unintelligible)

SPIEGEL: This is a recording from one of the many tapes collected for the project. See, every month for three years, trained observers with recorders were sent to the homes of the poor and rich families who had agreed to participate. All of them families, by the way, who cared deeply about their growing children. The observers were there to record every utterance, endless hours of seemingly inconsequential babble.

Unidentified Woman: What happened to your bed?

Unidentified Child: Wow, wee - I wee-weed on it.

Unidentified Woman: You wee-weed on it? Yeah.

SPIEGEL: Hart says it took 10 years to transcribe these tapes so they could be fed into a computer for analysis. But the results were worth it. Hart and Risley discovered many fascinating things about the differences between the way rich and poor families on average speak to their children.

But in the end, the finding that most struck people, Hart says, was not about the quality of the speech - but about the quantity.

According to their research, the average child in a welfare home hears 600 words an hour, a professional child, 2,100.

Dr. HART: Children in professional families are talked to three times as much as the average child in a welfare family.

SPIEGEL: Hart and Risley estimated that by the age of four, children of professional parents had heard 48 million words addressed to them while children in welfare families had only heard about 13 million.

It was no wonder then that the underprivileged kids they saw at their preschool often lagged behind at school. And personally, Hart says, seeing those numbers made her more than demoralized.

Dr. HART: Horrified might be a better word. Horrified when you see that the differences are so great, and you think of trying to make up those differences. You just look at it and say, you know, it's hopeless.

SPIEGEL: But is it hopeless?

Since this work was published in 1995, people in child development have seized on the idea that it's critical to teach poor parents how to talk to their babies like rich parents.

And so all over the country programs have cropped up to teach low-income parents things like how to talk to your baby while walking down the street or how to talk to your baby while playing with a toy.

Dr. ALAN MENDELSOHN (Behavioral Pediatrician, Bellevue Hospital): Okay, I'm going to bring up the first video now.

SPIEGEL: Dr. Alan Mendelsohn of Bellevue Hospital is of the people who has designed a program like this. And in this month's "Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine," he published a study which, he says, proves his program has been successful.

In Mendelsohn's program, mothers are videotaped playing with their babies every time they go to the pediatrician - 15 45-minute sessions, and they are coached on how to improve their interactions.

Dr. Mendelsohn describes a video of a mom with her two-month-old baby.

Dr. MENDELSOHN: The mother is holding the mirror up to the child, but is not really paying that much attention to the child. She's not talking to the child. She's not looking to see when the child is interested.

In this case, the specialist probably suggested ways the mother could use the mirror to verbally engage the baby, by talking about reflections, eye color. Changing these micro-interactions adds up to macro-differences. To all the millions of words Betty Hart's children were missing, and Mendelsohn says his program can clearly teach micro-interactions.

Dr. MENDELSOHN: Mothers had roughly a doubling in the amount of certain kinds of labeling activities. A 50 percent increase in the degree to which they sort of talked about what was going on in the surroundings of the child.

SPIEGEL: But Russ Whitehurst, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, warns that teaching a low-income mother to talk to her baby isn't going to transform the child.

Dr. RUSS WHITEHURST (Director, Brown Center on Education Policy, Brookings Institution): If that's not followed with good stimulation in school with continued positive parent interactions, if that experience isn't built on, it's not likely to have an enduring effect.

SPIEGEL: It takes more than words, he says, to really change the life of an underprivileged kid, but words are a place to start.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

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