Education
3:09 pm
Mon March 17, 2014

Efforts To Close The Achievement Gap In Kids Start At Home

Originally published on Tue March 18, 2014 9:34 am

When Andrea Riquetti taught kindergarten in Providence, R.I., the disparity between more affluent students and those from poor families was painfully clear.

"We would read The Very Hungry Caterpillar," she says, "and I would ask them, 'What is this fruit?' And they would call all the fruits just 'fruits,' because they didn't have the specific name."

Two-thirds of Providence children entering kindergarten already fall short on state literacy tests. Riquetti says this disadvantage in her students would compound over time because so much of learning depends on basic vocabulary.

"It was very hard for them to comprehend stories or to write stories, to share or to ask questions," she says.

Riquetti now helps run Providence Talks, the city's ambitious effort to change this so-called word gap that researchers discovered two decades ago. They found that professional parents tend to chat away to their children, using sophisticated language even before kids are old enough to understand, while low-income parents tend to speak far less and use more directives: "Do this, don't do that."

On average, by the time they are 3 years old, children in professional families have heard about 30 million more words than children from lower-income households. Through a yearlong series of home visits, Providence Talks aims to coach low-income parents to speak more, and differently, to their children.

Developing Conversations

On a recent morning, Julia Alfaro welcomes Stephanie Taveras, a home visitor from the program, into her small living room with a kiss on the cheek. Alfaro's 3-year-old daughter, Ayleen, bounds in, showing off her new sneakers with red lights.

Alfaro, 27, is a stay-at-home mom from Guatemala; her husband puts in long hours packing shellfish. Like much of Providence's lower-income population, the family speaks Spanish, though officials point out that is not the cause of the word gap.

Taveras brings a book to each visit. She settles on the couch next to Ayleen and her mother, and starts reading in Spanish. Then she points to the pictures and asks Ayleen questions.

"What color is that?" Ayleen taps a finger to her chin and ponders. "Yellow!"

To help parents measure progress, the city collects hard data. In fact, it's happening as they look at the book. Little Ayleen is wearing a recorder hidden inside a bright red vest specially designed for it.

The recorder logs every word spoken, all day long, and can distinguish different voices. It also distinguishes a TV, computer or radio that may be blaring in the background — words from those don't count when it comes to building a child's vocabulary, and in fact too much screen time may hurt, researchers say.

During the next visit, Taveras will bring a report that graphs the word count, hour by hour. Parents keep a log to know what they were doing at the time.

Another graph tracks conversational turns, when parent and child speak back and forth. Riquetti says these are incredibly important for language development.

"Even with babies," she says, "we see that [a parent] will coo or babble, and they will babble back, and we can measure that."

Alfaro says having all this data has changed how she talks with her daughter.

"Sometimes I was just talk, talk, talking," she says, "and not letting her express herself. Now I give her a turn."

Alfaro also turns off the TV. "Before, I'd put her in front of the TV when I was busy with housework," she says. "Now I'll include her. She'll help me wash the dishes, and we'll talk about what we're doing."

Privacy And Willingness

The first phase of the program includes 75 families, all of whom were enrolled in Early Head Start. Providence hopes to expand its effort to 2,000 low-income families and counsel them from the time their child is born. But the program is voluntary, and Alfaro says a lot of her friends are suspicious, fearful that someone is listening to the recordings.

City officials stress there's no transcript. A computer counts words only, then erases the recording.

Still, there are other concerns. Kyle Gorman, who studies language acquisition at Oregon Health and Science University, says the families who volunteer might already be more engaged with their children, "as opposed to parents of children who are most at risk."

He also worries about single parents and those juggling multiple jobs who are strapped for time. "And just as there's a word gap, there may be a parental involvement gap as well," he says. "What we're intervening to solve may not be so easily solved."

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras — no relation to the Providence Talks home visitor — pushed hard for the program, and says he's confident it will have an impact. He points out that he himself was raised by a single mother, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who did not go to high school and did not speak English.

"I'm a Head Start baby," he says. "Several of my classmates at Harvard were Head Start babies. I think the best investment we can make is in the early years of a child's life. The returns are great. They're long-term returns."

It's not clear how long term this experiment will be. Providence won $5 million in startup funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, and that money runs out in 2016. By then, Taveras hopes the results are so promising that other foundations will step up to keep it going.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. In affluent households, people talk a lot more than in poor households. How much more? Well, researchers say that a three-year-old child of affluence has heard 30 million more words uttered than a poor three-year-old has, and they found that this word gap can leave poor kids behind in school.

In Providence, Rhode Island, two-thirds of kindergarteners already fall short on state literacy tests and now the city has launched an ambitious new effort to try and change that, as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Andrea Riquetti used to teach kindergarten in Providence and saw the word gap first hand. She says it was painfully clear when it came to that classic book of childhood.

ANDREA RIQUETTI: We would read "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," and I would ask them, what is this fruit? And they would call all the fruits just fruits, because they didn't have the specific name.

LUDDEN: So much of learning, she says, depends on basic vocabulary.

RIQUETTI: So it was very hard for them to comprehend stories or to share or to ask questions.

LUDDEN: Research shows professional parents tend to chat away, using sophisticated language even before kids are old enough to understand. By contrast, low-income parents speak far less and use more simple directives: Do this, don't do that. In hopes of heading off such disparity, the city has launched what it calls Providence Talks.

STEPHANIE TAVERAS: (Speaking foreign language)

LUDDEN: Home visitor Stephanie Taveras enters the small living room of the Alfaro family. Three-year-old Ayleen bounds in to show off her sneakers with red lights.

AYLEEN ALFARO: (Speaking foreign language)

LUDDEN: Julia Alfaro is a 27-year-old stay-at-home mom from Guatemala; her husband puts in long hours packing shellfish. They're among the first to sign on for a yearlong series of home visits. To be clear, the word gap is not limited to Hispanics. The idea is to coach all lower income parents on how to talk more and differently to their children.

TAVERAS: (Speaking foreign language)

ALFARO: (Speaking foreign language)

LUDDEN: Taveras brings a book to each visit.

TAVERAS: (Speaking foreign language)

JULIA ALFARO: (Speaking foreign language)

ALFARO: (Speaking foreign language)

LUDDEN: To help parents measure progress, the city also collects hard data. In fact, it's happening right now. Little Ayleen is wearing a recorder. It's hidden inside a bright red vest. The recorder logs every word spoken, all day long.

RIQUETTI: In the next visit, we will bring a report that looks like this.

LUDDEN: Andrea Riquetti, the former teacher, now helps run Providence Talks. She shows me a series of graphs. There's a straight word count hour by hour. Another tracks conversational turns when parent and child speak back and forth. Riquetti says that's incredibly important for language development.

RIQUETTI: And even with babies, we see that they will coo or babble, and they will babble back, and we can measure that.

LUDDEN: The recorder an actually distinguish different voices.

RIQUETTI: Absolutely.

LUDDEN: Amazingly, it also distinguishes the TV or radio that may be blaring in the background and no, Riquetti says, words from that don't count when it comes to building a child's vocabulary.

ALFARO: (Speaking foreign language)

ALFARO: (Speaking foreign language)

LUDDEN: Julia Alfaro says having all this data has changed how she talks with her daughter.

ALFARO: (Speaking foreign language)

LUDDEN: Sometimes I was just talk, talk, talking, she says, and not letting her express herself. Now I give her a turn. Alfaro also turns off the TV.

ALFARO: (Through interpreter) Before, I'd put her in front of the TV when I was busy with housework. Now I'll include her. She'll help me wash the dishes, and we'll talk about what we're doing.

LUDDEN: Providence hopes to expand its effort to a couple thousand low income families, counseling them from the time their child is born. But the program is voluntary and Alfaro says a lot of her friends are suspicious.

ALFARO: (Speaking foreign language)

LUDDEN: They're afraid someone is listening to the recording, she says. City officials stress there's no transcript. A computer counts words only, then erases the recording. There is another concern, that families who volunteer will bed those already more engaged with their children.

KYLE GORMAN: As opposed to parents of children who are most at risk.

LUDDEN: Kyle Gorman studies language acquisition at Oregon Health and Science University. He worries about single parents or those juggling multiple jobs, strapped for time.

GORMAN: And just as there's a word gap, there may be a parental involvement gap as well. What we're intervening to solve may not be so easily solved.

MAYOR ANGEL TAVERAS: I'm very confident and that's why I sit here as mayor of the city of Providence, coming from a household with a mother who didn't go to high school.

LUDDEN: The word gap program is Mayor Angel Taveras' baby.

TAVERAS: I'm a Head Start baby. Several of my classmates at Harvard were Head Start babies. I think the best investment we can make is in the early years of a child's life. The returns are great. They're long-term returns.

LUDDEN: It's not clear how long term this experiment will be. Providence won $5 million in startup funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, money runs out in 2016. By then, Taveras hopes the results are so promising that other foundations will step up to keep it going. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.