Language can Break Cycle of Poverty

Teaching young children vocabulary skills through conversation can help them do significantly better later in life.

To break the cycle of poverty in Memphis, we must support programs that help children develop language skills in their first three years. According to the 2011 Data Book published by The Urban Child Institute, 40 percent of children in Memphis live in poverty, compared with 20 percent nationally. These children are at risk of remaining in poverty unless they receive help developing the language skills they need to succeed academically and cope with difficult emotions. Children need to begin learning how to communicate during the first three years of life. Those who have not developed these communication skills begin falling behind their peers as early as pre-kindergarten.

"In areas of the brain most closely associated with cognitive and language skills, most connections are formed before age three," the Data Book notes. The brain creates so many synapses, according to the research, that, over time, it "prunes away connections which are rarely or never used." As adults, we have a responsibility for children from birth to age 3 to help ensure that the connections in children's brains related to language and cognitive skills grow strong.

For children to gain the language skills they require to succeed academically, they need parents and/or teachers in their lives who support them. As the Data Book points out, children do significantly better when their parents engage in direct conversation with them, use a larger vocabulary, and offer praise and encouragement.

Conversing with children doesn't have to be complicated. One way it can be achieved is through play. As adults, we must provide safe spaces for children to play.

Children are born wanting to play and to learn. They have an innate curiosity about the world around them, and use play to learn to socialize with others. An article published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2007 states: "Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers. Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, and resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills."

Through play, adults can engage a child in conversation, which builds the child's vocabulary and has a profound connection with the child's brain development.

Reading to children is another way to engage their language skills.

When reading a book to an infant an adult is laying the groundwork for lifelong learning and academic achievement by helping promote positive brain development. This love and appreciation for reading and discussing stories needs to be a lifelong process, but it must start very early, since 80 percent of the brain's growth occurs between birth and 3 years of age.

To build language skills with your child, make reading a part of the child's daily routine. A great resource is the "Best Behavior" series of books for children 0-3. These books help children develop language skills, and provide examples of appropriate social behaviors. One book in the series is "Words Are Not for Hurting," which teaches children to say "I'm sorry" if they use "hurtful words."

To raise awareness of the importance of building language skills, the "Touch Talk Read Play" message is being promoted through broadcast media, community events and training programs for child care and social service providers across the community. "Touch Talk Read and Play" provides an easy-to-remember approach to support children's development. Children need to be held, talked to, read to and played with every day in order to succeed.

Vincent van Gogh is credited with saying that great things are done by a series of small things brought together. Each book an adult reads to a child, each conversation an adult has with a child about what they are doing, and each time an adult gets down on the floor to play with a child creates an opportunity for an invaluable step that will help the child become prepared for school, and ultimately for better and healthier life outcomes.

Amanda Myers is director of The Respect Program at the Exchange Club Family Center.

This article was originally published by The Commercial Appeal at