“THE more parents talk to their children, the faster those children’s vocabularies grow and the better their intelligence develops. Dr Hart and Dr Risley found a close correlation between the number of words a child’s parents had spoken to him by the time he was three and his academic success at the age of nine. At three, children born into professional families had heard 30m more words than those from a poorer background.
This observation has profound implications for policies about babies and their parents. It suggests that sending children to “pre-school” (nurseries or kindergartens) at the age of four—a favoured step among policymakers—comes too late to compensate for educational shortcomings at home.
Mind the gap
The problem seems to be cumulative. By the time children are two, there is a six-month disparity in the language-processing skills and vocabulary of the two groups. It is easy to see how this might happen. Toddlers learn new words from their context, so the faster a child understands the words he already knows, the easier it is for him to attend to those he does not.
It is also now clear from Dr Fernald’s work that words spoken directly to a child, rather than those simply heard in the home, are what builds vocabulary. Plonking children in front of the television does not have the same effect. Neither does letting them sit at the feet of academic parents while the grown-ups converse about Plato.
The effects can be seen directly in the brain. Although it cannot yet prove that hearing speech causes the brain to grow, it would fit with existing theories of how experience shapes the brain. Babies are born with about 100 billion neurons, and connections between these form at an exponentially rising rate in the first years of life. It is the pattern of these connections which determines how well the brain works, and what it learns. By the time a child is three there will be about 1,000 trillion connections in his brain, and that child’s experiences continuously determine which are strengthened and which pruned. This process, gradual and more-or-less irreversible, shapes the trajectory of the child’s life.
There are tools that can help, as well. One such is a Language Environment Analysis (LENA) device. It is like a pedometer, but keeps track of words, not steps, by analysing the speech children hear. It was originally developed as a prop for research, but parents kept asking for the data it recorded and researchers thus realised it could also serve as a spur. Parents use it to monitor, and improve, their patterns of speech, much as a pedometer-wearing couch potato might try to reach 10,000 steps a day, say.
Parents are taught to make the words they serve up more enriching. For example, instead of telling a child, “Put your shoes on,” one might say instead, “It is time to go out. What do we have to do?”
That is a good thing. Pre-school programmes are known to develop children’s numeracy, social skills and (as the term “pre-school” suggests) readiness for school. But they do not deal with the gap in much earlier development that Dr Fernald, Dr Noble, Dr Suskind and others have identified. And it is this gap, more than a year’s pre-schooling at the age of four, which seems to determine a child’s chances for the rest of his life.”