Is Your Child Worth an Investment of 30 Million?

... there is no substitute for the millions of words children need to hear in their first years. (Tweet this!)

It’s been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but for our youngest children, there is no substitute for the millions of words that they need to hear in their first years.

The more parents talk with their child in those early years, the more likely their child will excel academically later in life. In fact, some researchers say the number of words an infant is exposed to each day is an effective predictor of later intelligence, school success, and social competence.  

But it’s not just the number of words that matters. Context is also important. Words promote language development most effectively when they are part of a positive and supportive message.

It’s one of the reasons that talking to children is one of the four daily habits recommended for parents and caregivers in our Touch, Talk, Read, Play program. And we don’t mean conversations that consist of “Stop that,” “Get down from there,” or “Come eat.” Rather, we mean conversations in which parents talk in engaging and supportive ways with their children - about colors, shapes, animals, food, plants, and more.

Watching TV or listening to a parent’s cell phone conversation is no substitute for the kind of talking that makes a difference for children. It’s the genuine conversations that matter most, because they are important investments in children’s intellectual life and brain development.

Addressing the Language Gap to Close the Achievement Gap

Unfortunately, many children in our community are only exposed to a small fraction of the words that can be an important down payment in their futures. By the time a child born into a low-income, less educated family reaches three years old, he has heard about one-third fewer words than a child living in a family with a higher income.

Decades of research concludes that children in low-income families typically enter school with poorer language skills – the “language gap” – and they often score more than two years behind on standardized language development tests by the time they enter school.

We live in an age of rapidly expanding research on brain development and early childhood development that changes everything we once thought we knew about young children. For example, we now know that the words a child hears start making a difference even before he can talk back. And we also know that by the time a toddler from a disadvantaged family is 18 months old, his language skills are likely to be several months behind those of children in more advantaged families.

Closing the achievement gap is a priority for Memphis and Shelby County, and to do this, we need to begin by closing the language gap with programs in churches, child care centers, and neighborhoods.

The Power of Touch, Talk, Read, Play

The National Governors Association has called the academic achievement gap between low-income children and their higher-income counterparts "one of the most pressing education policy challenges that states currently face." This is an extremely serious issue in Memphis, where more than half of all children are born into low-income families, placing them at risk for poor early vocabulary development.

To repeat, infants and babies develop most rapidly with parents and caretakers who are not only loving, but also talkative and articulate. A more verbal family increases an infant and toddler's chance for success. These early steps are the best attempts to close the language gap that exists between children of different income levels, and in turn, they help to close the achievement gap that is a priority for Shelby County Schools.

The good news is that even in low-income families, parents who speak to their children more frequently can close the language gap. That, more than anything, is the beauty of Touch, Talk, Read, Play, because these are simple every day actions that pay dividends for a lifetime.

And they don’t cost a thing.