Preventing the word gap

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Back when I attended preschool, I used language as a weapon. If my teacher frustrated me, I would shut down and decide to only speak in Spanish. Considering that all my teachers and fellow students were non-Spanish speakers, this did not go too well for me.  My mother was even called into class a few times to remind me of the importance of using English.

Reflecting on my insolence, I believe at least part of the reason I became frustrated was because of the difficulty I had with words in English. My family spoke Spanish at home and it was a struggle for me to keep up with classmates who were native English speakers. The fact was that, even at the preschool level, there was a word gap that was a struggle for my teachers and me to resolve. 

This word gap issue hits hard for disadvantaged students, too, according to seminal research from Betty Hart and Todd Risely who showed that students  from lower income families hear close to 30 million fewer words than students from higher income homes by the time they are old enough to enter preschool. A more recent Stanford University study found that the word gap starts for children as early as 18 months in age, meaning that not just K-12, but preschools also have to remediate to try to close these gaps.

But is remediation the only option for educators and policymakers? Angel Taveras, mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, doesn't think so. A recent NPR piece highlights Providence Talks- an innovative approach that is focusing on prevention.  The program gives participating families small recording devices that calculate the number of words spoken and tracks dialogue between parents and children. The families are then given tips on how to increase their children's exposure to language.

While certainly not a silver bullet, ideas that focus on prevention over remediation are deserving of attention. Keep on talking, Providence!