Are Words Enough?

Doing more to close the Million-Word Gap.

Over the past year, there’s been a lot of talk about the “word gap,” the unequal number of words children of different economic backgrounds hear each day. We know that the linguistic divide represents an inequality that lasts into adulthood. Over and over again, we have cited the number of words as a key factor in children’s lifelong success, their ability to read, communicate thoughts, process information, etc. The disparity has always seemed quantifiable, something we could easily wrap our brains around as we strive to give children lots of words, the earlier the better.

However, as a mother of three children and a lifelong early childhood educator, the idea of filling the million word gap with endless adult-generated talk aimed at children always struck me as overly simplistic and even invasive. Emphasizing the quantity rather than quality of interaction presented an intrusion into the child’s inner life, almost undermining their right to make meaning and drive their learning.

During a recent Harvard symposium on The Leading Edge in Early Childhood Education to examine how to improve children’s early education–including closing the word gap–I got to hear from Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, professor of Psychology at Temple University and an expert on language development. She specifically addressed what kind of talk matters and why. She shared the following excerpt from a study called How Do Families Matter produced by The Foundation for Child Development in 2009:

The Eggplant Parable

A mom is at the supermarket with her young child who notices an eggplant. “Mommy, what’s that?” asks the child. The response is as follows:

Mother #1: Shushes her child and ignores the question.

Mother #2: “That’s an eggplant. We don’t eat it.”

Mother #3: “Oh, that’s an eggplant. It’s one of the few purple vegetables.” She picks it up, hands it to her son, and encourages him to put it on the scale. “Oh, look, it’s about two pounds!” she says. “And it’s $1.99 a pound, so that would cost just about $4. That’s a bit pricey, but you like veal parmesan, and eggplant parmesan is delicious too. You’ll love it. Let’s buy one, take it home, cut it open. We’ll make a dish together.”

Mother #3 is doing everything possible to fill the word gap, not simply in the number of words she provides, but also by sharing the child’s interest, creating language in a meaningful context, and providing the vocabulary and grammar reciprocally. She offers a layered response that enthusiastically expands the child’s world knowledge—providing a nuanced description of the object (purple, heavy, and expensive). She then reminds the child of past experiences: You like veal so you might like this. And then she follows up with what will happen next: We’ll buy it, cut it open and make it together. This is a deep interaction, an example of shared attention between two human beings.

Hirsch-Pasek’s research expands the conversation around the million word gap, and she provides six principles of engagement that we can all apply to help us behave more like Mother #3:

1. Children learn what they hear most

2. Children learn words for things and events that interest them

3. Interactive and responsive environments build language learning

4. Children learn best in meaningful contexts

5. Children need to hear diverse examples of words and language structures

6. Vocabulary and grammatical development are reciprocal processes

Doing things together such as cooking, making art, going to a museum, walking in the park, reading books and singing songs all provide meaningful language experiences within a loving context. Whether at home or in a high quality educational environment, children have a right to thoughtful language exchanges that build a sense of self, self-esteem, strong attachments to adults and friendships with children.

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