Oh, the Places We'll Go with the Word Gap!

Oh, the Places You’ll Go! may have preceded the publication of Betty Hart’s and Todd Risley’s landmark study by five years. But oh, how deliciously apt. The researchers’ discovery of language disparities among children across the socioeconomic spectrum has taken off.

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Reducing the gap of  30 million words between low- and high-income children has approached the level of national obsession. The Clinton Foundation got on board with its initiative Too Small to Fail.  So did the University of Chicago medical school, which created a website to support the ongoing conversation.

Efforts reached a fevered pitch in the fall of 2014. The White House Office on Science and Technology, the Urban Institute, Too Small to Fail, the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Institute for Museum and Library Services hosted a forum for policymakers, researchers, and early childhood advocates to discuss the gap–a matter, some might argue, of national security.

I’m all for nurturing equitable acquisition of our mother tongue, as well as a second language—bilingualism is good for mental acuity, I hear. Loquaciousness was a religion in my own household, the adherents, hyper-articulate. Bedtime reading was sacrosanct. But our little lab didn’t produce early readers.  Neither my son nor daughter was reading by the end of kindergarten. One acquired mastery by the end of first grade, the other around the time of Christmas break, in second grade. October babies, they both were fluent readers by seven, give or take a few months. (As you’ve probably figured out, kindergarten was not yet the new first grade, the ravages of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top somewhere in the future.)

So who am I to suggest that the kids of poor and working-class parents be deprived of all this? I’m not proposing anything of the kind.

I’m worried about what Cooper Zale, a.k.a. “lefty parent” at the Daily Kos, described as the “Education-Industrial Complex,” a nexus of money, power, politics, and influence, where toxic reform policies brew, the evidence is distorted, and children’s best interests  get short shrift.  Why, just a couple of years ago, Angel Taveras, the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, won a five-million-dollar prize from Bloomberg Philanthropies to close the gap. And Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs are hovering.

Last week, Steven Miller weighed in at Education Week. He identifies himself as a research neuropsychologist and the chief scientist at Nervanix, “a company that designs software to improve attention and focus for K-12 and adult learners.” He’s also the co-founder of Scientific Learning Corp, which designs reading intervention tools for preschoolers through 12th graders.

Miller has done research on the neural basis of brain plasticity and learning, but here’s his calling card, on LinkedIn: “I am a passionate collaborator with broad business experience in technology transfer, translational research, business incorporation, venture funding and the start-up phases of several companies, including a successful IPO.”

What all of the above has to do with kids, I couldn’t tell you. But Miller has identified a new market. What have we learned since the Hart and Risley study? he asks. There’s much more to it than a vocabulary deficit, this serial entrepreneur asserts, citing the finding that language in impoverished families was more often used to communicate disapproval or punishment:

Think about that for a moment. For an impoverished child, language is a way to be punished, twice as often as it is to receive positive reinforcement or praise. So, that child is struggling with much more than a 30-million-word difference. If a child has had language used twice as often to put him or her down, that child is not going to be excited about talking or using language at all. Imagine the teacher’s challenge for reaching and educating the language-impoverished student.

I guess Miller’s been too busy with his IPOs to keep up with the latest thinking on the deficit theory. Or to get a read on his cultural sensitivity quotient. Oh those stressed-out, impoverished parents, with their lousy child-rearing skills.

He claims that we’re never going to get those poor kids up to speed; their peers, won’t slow down. Ah, a great business opportunity. He’s thinking of research-based software programs in schools and homes. You know, “student-driven learning experiences” that are far superior to those terribly inefficient interactions in small-group environments.

This neuropsychologist concludes with a call for “positive experiences with language and reading, in a safe, nonjudgmental environment.” He highly recommends speech-recognition software for reading aloud. A great vehicle for “one-on-one guidance and real-time feedback from an unbiased listener.” Has he seen any preschoolers lately? Last time I checked, one was climbing into her daddy’s lap getting ready for a good read.

Just today, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, the authors of How Babies Talk, and two of the nation’s foremost experts on language acquisition, published an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News. Our efforts are missing the mark, they say. Filling little ones’ brains with 30 million words is not the right approach. How we communicate is key, in that intimate sphere of adult and child:

We must promote warm and caring relationships in which adults don’t just talk to children, but instead engage in a back-and-forth interaction. When parents keep the conversation going, rather than simply trying to get their children to hear as many words as possible, they are preparing their children for later language and school success.

I’ll take that—along with economic security, paid family leave, high-quality child care, flexibility in the workplace, and a big reduction in the child poverty rate. It seems to me that all of the above would go a long way toward promoting those “positive experiences with language and reading, in a safe, nonjudgmental environment.”

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