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Education

The 30 million word gap of poverty

Flickr: San José Library

Poverty might begin with a lack of money, but it doesn’t end there. It’s ultimately a state of being, as lack of money and resources fan out to cover nearly every aspect of a person’s life.

Poverty sharply restricts what a person can do, affects nearly every decision a person makes and tends to cause perpetual anxiety.

Because of this, raising a child in poverty is very difficult.

The mounting stress of not having enough food, not getting enough sleep, worrying about how bills will get paid, worrying about who will watch the kids during work, how the car will get fixed, how the boiler will get refilled, and so on, leaves little energy for being the world’s best parent.

These are all compounding, connected factors and they’re hard to deal with one by one, let alone all at once.

As you can imagine, children growing up in this kind of environment face a range of disadvantages.

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One disadvantage has particularly startling implications: poverty of language.

Since poor parents tend to have lower education levels and are dealing with constant stress, they usually end up speaking less with their children, teaching less new words, and entertaining fewer curious streams of questions.

They may not be able to afford toys or books that could spark conversation, may be too tired after dinner to do anything but plunk a kid in front of a tv, or may not have the time to have in-depth conversations on a day-to-day basis.

On the other side of the wealth spectrum, affluent parents are able to actively engage in conversation with children. They can afford all sorts of props and educational helpers, and they may have more time and energy to guide meaningful conversations with their kids.

As days and months turn into years, a gulf opens up.

The poor kid literally ends up hearing around 30 million less words, on average, over her first 3 years than a wealthy peer.

This gulf is difficult to overcome, and, oftentimes, only widens as time goes on.

Language is perhaps the greatest cultivator of a child’s mind. Hearing words, learning new concepts and being a part of creative interactions causes explosions of brain activity. Neurons hungrily branch, form connections and lay the foundation for future intellectual capacity.

And the ability to form neural connections wanes as a child gets older. The peak years are 0-3 when the brain is forming. So children who hear less language during this time may never catch up. Sadly, their innate sense of curiosity, which enables future learning, may be weakened.

Across the world where poverty is more extreme, this phenomenon is surely more intense than in the US. But policy makers in the US are working to shrink the “word gap” between wealthy and poor households, and, in doing so, are hoping to end cycles of poverty.

Providence, Rhode Island, has rolled out a program called “Providence Talks.”

It all begins with providing support to parents. Experts visit households and explain the nuances of speaking with their children.

For instance, if a child asks “Are elephants reptiles?” it’s more helpful to say “Crocodiles are reptiles, and elephants are mammals,” instead of “No, they aren’t.”

By extending the conversation rather than shutting it down, you both present the child with a new concept and also leave open the possibility for sparking further questions. Over time, this simple method can lead to much longer and richer conversations and will nurture a child’s desire to learn.

Providence Talks is not just about talking to your baby, it's about encouraging parents to be the best parent they can...

Posted by Providence Talks on Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Parents are also given books, prompts and props. Their daily performance is also assessed--words spoken and word quality are measured--so that feedback can be provided and recommendations can be made.

This might strike some as a little too overbearing. Shouldn’t parents have the freedom to raise their kids how they want, without interference?

But poverty is not a choice. The consequences of poverty are rarely overcome through sheer willpower.

The first few years of a child’s life are critical. What happens during this time can shape the trajectory of a person’s life.

Just because someone is born into poverty does not mean that they should be stuck with a hard-to-overcome language gap.

So if poor children can be given a chance to equal the mental playing field with their wealthier peers, then society should do what it can to make that happen.

You can go to TAKE ACTION NOW to make early childhood education a priority around the world.