Low-Income Kids Face a Massive Word Gap. Here’s One Way to Fix It.

A Rhode Island program is trying to boost the vocabulary of low-income kids by recording and evaluating the words they say. Is this a novel approach, or seriously invasive?

A mother reads a story to her children at Union Station in Washington, D.C.
National Journal
Dec. 17, 2013, 4 a.m.

This art­icle is part of a weeklong Amer­ica 360 series on Provid­ence.

PROVID­ENCE, R.I. — Small chil­dren in the most talk­at­ive homes hear, on av­er­age, 20,000 to 30,000 words in a day. That num­ber may sound im­plaus­ible. But all of the over­heard con­ver­sa­tions, nurs­ery rhymes, and ad­mon­ish­ments add up.

And, for up­per-in­come chil­dren, they add up much faster than they do in homes deep in poverty. This cre­ates a so­cioeco­nom­ic “word gap” between low- and high-in­come chil­dren.

This gap ex­ists in the dif­fer­ence between read­ing and watch­ing TV. It’s in the dif­fer­ence between hand­ing a tod­dler a bowl of cer­eal, and us­ing that cer­eal as a ploy to talk about mouths and tum­mies. The gap widens be­cause a low-in­come par­ent, who works two jobs, isn’t around as much to talk to her chil­dren, or has less en­ergy when she is home. And it grows be­cause a child whose par­ents can­not af­ford a stuffed ele­phant may nev­er have much reas­on to talk about ele­phants at all.

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.

In Provid­ence, many of these chil­dren fill up the pub­lic-school sys­tem: 87 per­cent of stu­dents dis­trict-wide here are eli­gible for free or re­duced-price lunch. Come Janu­ary, the city plans to launch an un­con­ven­tion­al in­ter­ven­tion with a few dozen low-in­come chil­dren — then hun­dreds more — in a bid to al­ter their life pro­spects by chan­ging how their par­ents talk to them.

“Un­for­tu­nately, Provid­ence takes turns, it seems, with De­troit and New Or­leans to see who’s go­ing to lead in child­hood poverty,” says John Kelly, CEO of Meet­ing Street, which runs an Early Head Start home-vis­it­a­tion pro­gram in town that will be cent­ral to the ini­ti­at­ive, called Provid­ence Talks. “That doesn’t cre­ate al­ways healthy, happy home en­vir­on­ments.”

Provid­ence won a $5 mil­lion grant over three years from Bloomberg Phil­an­throp­ies to de­vel­op the ini­ti­at­ive in part­ner­ship with com­munity-ser­vice pro­viders, re­search­ers at Brown, and a Col­or­ado found­a­tion that’s figured out how to build 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.

The pro­ject has at­trac­ted na­tion­al at­ten­tion for both the Bloomberg money and the curi­ous tech­no­logy. Provid­ence Talks is also nov­el for its high stakes: May­or An­gel Taver­as wants to scale the ini­ti­at­ive city­wide, while pri­vacy ad­voc­ates raise con­cerns about the pro­gram’s in­tru­sion in­to res­id­ents’ lives. Bloomberg’s not-for-profit gave Provid­ence this money on the gamble that it could val­id­ate a chain re­ac­tion that oth­er cit­ies could fol­low. Close the word gap, ad­voc­ates say, and you might close the achieve­ment gap and maybe even dis­rupt the cycle of poverty.


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.”

Their sample size was ad­mit­tedly and ne­ces­sar­ily small. But the ef­fect was so start­ling and con­sist­ent across time that the re­search­ers hoped that the 30-mil­lion-word gap would change some part of early child­hood edu­ca­tion.

Ten years ago, the tech­no­logy still didn’t ex­ist to eas­ily re­peat what they had done. But the non­profit LENA Re­search Found­a­tion in Col­or­ado began try­ing to train com­puter al­gorithms to parse the minute verbal dif­fer­ences that Hart and Ris­ley had tran­scribed by hand. Over sev­er­al years, LENA’s speech-re­cog­ni­tion en­gin­eers de­veloped soft­ware that could tell the dif­fer­ence between a child speak­ing and a par­ent, between a live voice and one on tele­vi­sion. Sim­ul­tan­eously, the found­a­tion was work­ing with a re­cord­ing device that could, for the first time, re­cord for 16 hours straight.

Today, no hu­man has to listen to the au­dio cap­tured by LENA’s re­cord­er, a “di­git­al lan­guage pro­cessor.” The soft­ware ana­lyzes it in a few hours and tab­u­lates the total num­ber of adult words a child hears in a day (not count­ing TV), or the num­ber of give-and-takes between child and par­ent.

Some 200 uni­versit­ies and hos­pit­als now use the tech­no­logy for clin­ic­al or re­search pro­jects that of­ten have noth­ing to do with poverty. The device is also used by lin­guist­ic de­part­ments, in aut­ism and hear­ing-impair­ment re­search, to meas­ure in­ter­ac­tions with the eld­erly, or between teach­ers and stu­dents in a classroom. Dana Sus­kind, a Uni­versity of Chica­go re­search­er whose work in­spired Provid­ence’s ini­ti­at­ive, has been us­ing LENA for a sim­il­ar, smal­ler-scale pro­ject on Chica­go’s South Side.

Sus­kind’s evid­ence sug­gests that Provid­ence Talks could work. Adults and chil­dren in Chica­go in­creased their word counts and the fre­quency of their in­ter­ac­tions with each oth­er over the course of sev­er­al months. Her re­search has also giv­en par­ents peri­od­ic feed­back from the LENA re­cord­ings, along­side a home-vis­it­ing cur­riculum to coach them along the way on the im­port­ance of vocab­u­lary and the many subtle op­por­tun­it­ies — while play­ing, eat­ing, singing, clean­ing — when chil­dren ab­sorb it.

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.”


Kissiy Puello sus­pects that her 2-year-old, Nor­al­iz, hears maybe 500 vocab­u­lary words a day. The 36-year-old moth­er of three lives in Provid­ence’s West End neigh­bor­hood, where her Early Head Start home vis­it­or was mak­ing a reg­u­lar vis­it earli­er this month. Nor­al­iz already talks a lot. “That’s her per­son­al­ity, the way she is,” Puello says — so there’s every reas­on to be­lieve she’s already tak­ing those cues from some­where. But next month, Meet­ing Street will be­gin giv­ing Puello more tar­geted guid­ance on how to talk about emo­tions, or how to re­peat Nor­al­iz’s own words back to her, or how to try out new vocab­u­lary through fin­ger plays.

Provid­ence Talks will be un­like Sus­kind’s pro­ject, not just for its am­bi­tion to do this with hun­dreds of fam­il­ies, but also be­cause the LENA Found­a­tion has nev­er heard of a loc­al gov­ern­ment play­ing a role in an idea like this be­fore.

City Hall has the re­sources to yield the widest im­pact, ap­proach­ing the kind Sus­kind has in mind. May­or Taver­as ul­ti­mately wants to identi­fy and in­vite fam­il­ies to par­ti­cip­ate from the mo­ment they go through a state-man­dated new­born screen­ing in a Provid­ence hos­pit­al. In the city, 2,700 ba­bies are born each year.

But the in­volve­ment of gov­ern­ment also prompts a level of alarm for civil liber­tari­ans that would not ex­ist if this were simply a Brown re­search study with an identic­al design. “There’s al­ways a con­cern when we walk in with tech­no­logy in­to lower-in­come fam­il­ies, im­mig­ra­tion pop­u­la­tions, minor­ity pop­u­la­tions, and we say ‘This will help you,’ ” says Hil­lary Dav­is, a policy as­so­ci­ate with the Rhode Is­land ACLU, “and we don’t ne­ces­sar­ily re­cog­nize the threat to their own safety or liberty that can ac­ci­dent­ally come along with that.”

Provid­ence has built in sev­er­al pri­vacy pre­cau­tions that oth­er users of the LENA tech­no­logy don’t al­ways take. (The ACLU, which has been talk­ing to the city, would like those in writ­ing.) The re­cord­er it­self has no “play” but­ton, should the device get lost. And par­ents, who vo­lun­teer to par­ti­cip­ate, have the op­tion of pur­ging a re­cord­ing be­fore it’s pro­cessed if they change their minds about par­ti­cip­at­ing in the pro­gram. After the soft­ware (held at Meet­ing Street) does ana­lyze the files, it also auto­mat­ic­ally de­letes them, Meet­ing Street says. Skep­tics wary of even well-in­ten­tioned tech­no­logy may not be re­as­sured by these pre­cau­tions.

But An­drea Ri­quetti-Sal­vatore, the dir­ect­or of Early Head Start at Meet­ing Street, fig­ures that the tech­no­logy has been easi­er to in­tro­duce be­cause she and the may­or are us­ing it with their chil­dren, too.

Since Novem­ber, Puello and about a dozen fam­il­ies have been test­ing the re­cord­ers at home. At this point, on the eve of the full rol­lout, the feed­back is mundane but valu­able: One 4-month-old spit up on the vest the first time she wore it. (Now she’s wear­ing a bib). Puello didn’t real­ize she was sup­posed to keep the re­cord­er on even while Nor­al­iz was sleep­ing.

Baby Nor­al­iz has also not been en­tirely fooled by the device hid­den in her LENA vest. “She no­tices it at­tached to her,” Puello says. “I ex­plained to her she has to do that for school. So she doesn’t touch it, she doesn’t take it off.”

The idea that a 2-year-old has to “do this for school” is a play on her de­sire to seem like her older sib­lings, the one who goes to Early Head Start, and the oth­er who’s in the sixth grade. But it’s also a lit­er­al state­ment. Maybe this will help her in school one day.

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