Can We Disrupt Poverty by Changing How Poor Parents Talk to Their Kids?

Friday, December 27th, 2013

Can we disrupt poverty by changing how poor parents talk to their kids?

By the time poor children are 3, researchers believe they have heard on average about 30 million fewer words than children the same age from better-off families, setting back their vocabulary, cognitive development, and future reading skills before the first day of school. This disadvantage is “already almost irreversible,” says Kenneth Wong, a professor of education policy at Brown University.

I love the way correlation is treated as causation. How many different English words do affluent children with a nanny hear, by the way?

The Providence Talks project is spending its $5 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies on a pedometer for words:

The device, a 2-ounce specialized recorder about the size of a deck of cards, maps the intensity of communication between parents and children. The infants and toddlers in Providence Talks will wear it twice a month, tucked into a custom-made vest, for 12 to 16 hours at a time. The recorder then plugs into a computer, where software automatically converts the audio files into charts that can be used by Meeting Street to coach the parents on how and when they might speak to their children more often.

As always, these things devolve into self-parody:

For years, we didn’t notice this inequality of vocabulary — or the extent of it — because it was a painstaking thing to measure before the advent of smarter recorders and software. A seminal study, published in 1995 by two child psychologists at the University of Kansas, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, manually identified the effect.

They spent two-and-a-half years studying 42 Kansas City families of varying incomes with children who were, at the start of the study, 7 to 9 months old. For an hour each month, Hart and Risley recorded and observed everything that took place in a home around a child. They ultimately spent four years transcribing and analyzing 1,300 hours of observation. Their results showed that children in families on welfare heard half as many words per hour as children of working-class parents, and a third as many as children of professional parents.

Over time, the children also came to mirror their parents in vocabulary and interactions. “When we listened to the children,” Hart and Risley wrote, “we seemed to hear their parents speaking.”

Really? No one noticed the difference in speech patterns between poor children and rich? And only now do we realize that children sound like their parents?

The goal is clear:

Suskind is eager to see this strategy, backed by more research, help more than a handful of families. Imagine, for example, if aggregated data from a project like this could help cities make the case for more library funding in neighborhoods where children do not hear as many words.

“We need this to succeed. We want this to succeed,” Suskind says of Providence Talks, whose advisory board she has joined. “If this can be shown to be effective on a larger scale, it would be a great thing.”


  1. It seems to me that it’s just a matter of time before all this interest and effort in educational psychology and the new technology we throw at it will eventually confirm basically every stereotype known to man.

  2. I thought watching Sesame Street would cure the lack of vocabulary.

    Certainly, when mom leaves Jerry Springer and other shows on, the increase in vocabulary should be vast.

  3. Handle says:

    I know! We should just turn the TV’s into Skype or Facetime. They need to be on 24/7, and instead of always showing Big Brother, you pair up one low-SES dysfunctional family with one super-elite helicopter family. It’s like a digital umbilical cord or perma-portal. Ultra Pen Pals.

    The poor kid gets exposed to all those words, and the rich kid gets the benefit of exposure to diversity, how the other half lives, and ‘empathy’, or something. Occasionally rich mom gently suggests to poor mom to cut it out with all the weed, and poor mom gets to share vocabulary too with her extensive knowledge of contemporary obscenities.

  4. Bruce says:

    When the BBC was big on received pronunciation, Britain went Left in a big way. Coincidence? Fort wouldn’t think so. Maybe we are all someone’s property.

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