Engaging Parents as Key Partners in Closing the Vocabulary Gap

Posted June 21, 2016
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog storytalkathome 2016

A grow­ing body of research, as well as some promis­ing new pilot pro­grams, under­score the urgent need to close the vocab­u­lary gap between chil­dren who are raised in pover­ty and those raised in mid­dle-income fam­i­lies — a gap that can lead to endur­ing aca­d­e­m­ic prob­lems as chil­dren grow up.

Stud­ies show that lan­guage dis­par­i­ties begin ear­ly. Chil­dren who are 18 months old and grow­ing up in mid­dle-income fam­i­lies already know 60% more words than do chil­dren of the same age from poor back­grounds. Those mid­dle-class kids also under­stand words more quick­ly. By kinder­garten, the lan­guage gap has widened con­sid­er­ably. Anoth­er study reveals that by the age of 3, chil­dren grow­ing up in poor fam­i­lies have heard up to 30 mil­lion few­er words being spo­ken in their homes or child care set­tings than their mid­dle class peers.

Not sur­pris­ing­ly, this widen­ing vocab­u­lary and lan­guage gap soon turns into an endur­ing achieve­ment gap — with many chil­dren already falling behind aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly in the ear­ly years and at risk of nev­er catch­ing up as they get old­er. By age 5, chil­dren liv­ing in pover­ty score two years behind their mid­dle-class peers on stan­dard­ized lan­guage devel­op­ment. By the fourth grade, stud­ies show that half the chil­dren in pover­ty are unable to read with even basic pro­fi­cien­cy, putting them at risk for chron­ic aca­d­e­m­ic under­per­for­mance and dimin­ished job prospects lat­er on.

This research has helped shape a num­ber of pilot pro­grams, includ­ing sev­er­al being devel­oped at Tem­ple Uni­ver­si­ty in Philadel­phia. These pro­grams reach out to par­ents and child care providers, as well as teach­ers, to encour­age that all-impor­tant exchange of words and con­ver­sa­tion. One Tem­ple pro­gram — based on an evi­dence-based cur­ricu­lum called Sto­ry Talk” — seeks to close this vocab­u­lary gap by help­ing Head Start teach­ers strength­en their vocab­u­lary instruc­tion in the class­room through read­ing and oth­er activ­i­ties. Fund­ed through the Insti­tute of Edu­ca­tion Sci­ences, the pro­gram deliv­ers high-qual­i­ty pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment with teacher coach­ing and struc­tured les­son guides. Sto­ry Talk at Home,” sup­port­ed by the Casey Foundation’s Evi­dence-Based Prac­tice Group, draws on our long-held belief in the pos­i­tive role that par­ents and oth­er fam­i­ly mem­bers can play in boost­ing their children’s suc­cess. Cur­rent­ly being pilot­ed in ear­ly-edu­ca­tion set­tings in Bal­ti­more and Philadel­phia, the pro­gram lever­ages the work being done through Sto­ry Talk” to explore how schools, in part­ner­ship with fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties, can rein­force efforts to bol­ster kids’ lit­er­a­cy. This com­mu­ni­ty-based pro­gram includes exten­sive con­sul­ta­tion with and feed­back from Head Start staff and families.

It’s time to rethink how we sup­port lan­guage devel­op­ment, par­tic­u­lar­ly in a child’s ear­ly years. By sup­port­ing the devel­op­ment of a more mul­ti-faceted, coor­di­nat­ed approach that engages both teach­ers and fam­i­lies and builds upon strong evi­dence, we at the Foun­da­tion are hope­ful that every­one who cares about young people’s suc­cess will have the tools and skills to make it hap­pen,” observes Ilene Berman, senior asso­ciate with Evi­dence-Based Prac­tice Group.

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