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: So for years, she and a professor at the university named Todd Risley worked tirelessly to expand the vocabularies of these 4-year-olds.
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.
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.
HART: Unidentified Woman: (Singing) (unintelligible)
SPIEGEL: Unidentified Woman: What happened to your bed?
INSKEEP: Unidentified Woman: You wee-weed on it? Yeah.
SPIEGEL: According to their research, the average child in a welfare home hears 600 words an hour, a professional child, 2,100.
HART: Children in professional families are talked to three times as much as the average child in a welfare family.
SPIEGEL: 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.
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: 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.
ALAN MENDELSOHN: Okay, I'm going to bring up the first video now.
SPIEGEL: Dr. Mendelsohn describes a video of a mom with her two-month-old baby.
MENDELSOHN: 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.
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.
RUSS WHITEHURST: 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: Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.