Young children’s oral language development has long-term implications for their academic success; but there are profound differences in word learning and content knowledge between children living in poverty and those from more economically advantaged homes. By the time they enter school, children of middle class families may know as many as 15,000 more words than their less advantaged peers.
And words are just the tip of the iceberg; a vocabulary gap and test score gap is what we see – but what’s underneath is a gap in children’s opportunities to acquire background knowledge. These early differences can set children up for other all too familiar gaps, such as the gaps in high school graduation, arrest and incarceration, post-secondary education, and lifetime earnings. So, what can we do to prevent this “early catastrophe”? Unfortunately, we do not yet know how to eradicate poverty; but there are other things we can do. Let’s Talk™about those!
Let’s Talk™ is about words and ideas and about how they form a relentless divide between the children who succeed in school and those who do not. Without enough vocabulary and background knowledge, children cannot fully understand the new words and ideas they encounter in texts and in classroom discussions.
Let’s Talk™ is about how this gap can be prevented if parents, caregivers and educators do simple things to help young children develop vocabulary and learn about the world. Things like talking with babies, encouraging them respond back, exposing our little ones to stimulating activities, being responsive to a toddler’s questions, etc. Let’s Talk™ is primarily about talking!
- Talking about what? Talking about anything and everything! About colors and animals, about how things work, about numbers and the weather, about the book that we are looking at together right now…
- Talking when/where? Talking anytime, anywhere. Learning can happen when you make breakfast, while you shop at the grocery store, when grandpa tells a story, when you sing to your baby at night…
- Talking in what language? It doesn’t matter. The most important thing is for your child to learn a lot about the world, and to have the vocabulary – in whatever language – to be able to talk, explain, and ask questions about it.
- Talking how? Your child learns best from you – from personal interactions with family members and caretakers. Speak, sing, and play with your child as much as you can. And always encourage your child to coo, babble, talk and sing back to you; real communication goes both ways.
None of these things is difficult and they don’t require parents to be experts in anything. Nor do they take a lot of money or time. Any parent or caregiver can do these things during their daily routines. Taken individually, these interactions may seem small and unimportant but, taken together, they can make an enormous difference.
The Let’s Talk™ initiative draws on the work that the Albert Shanker Institute has done synthesizing the research on oral language development and translating it into professional development (PD) modules for early childhood educators that are being used in courses around the country, and have been implemented as a district-wide program for preschool educators by St. Louis Public Schools. The Institute and its partners are now adapting these materials for use by parents, caregivers, medical and social service providers, and will make them freely available across settings that are relevant to children and families.
Let’s Talk™ is a research-based effort about raising community awareness and expertise in how a child’s knowledge and language develop in tandem, forming the foundation for all subsequent learning. The initiative begins with family engagement, providing parents and caregivers with coordinated training and support on strategies and practices that we know work for all children. This effort involves a variety of stakeholders including daycare providers, home visitation programs, school systems, hospitals and clinics, existing community based programs, and so on. The initiative will employ a variety of outreach strategies, including training and support offered through existing infrastructures (e.g., schools, hospitals, home visiting programs), public service announcements that reach a broad audience, open online educational resources (including video modeling, guides and activities, etc.) to equip families and early childhood educators with knowledge and research-based strategies that support children’s knowledge and vocabulary development.
Our goal is to increase school readiness and the overall well-being of children 0-to-5, particularly those living in poverty. We will do this by working hand-in-hand with parents and communities from the earliest possible moment. We believe that babies and young children are primed for success. They are eager to understand the world around them. They actively strive to build knowledge and to develop language to communicate about what they learn. They develop theories about how the world works; they learn to solve problems; they ask questions in a constant quest for information. And, when provided with supportive and stimulating environments, they thrive –before, during, and after formal schooling. If we want all children to enter school ready to learn, to read proficiently by the end of third grade, and to grow into healthy teens and productive adults, the early years is the time to start. Talk may be cheap, but it’s priceless for developing young minds.