Varda Epstein: Giving Children the Gift of Language

by Varda Epstein

No matter how much the government works to solve the education problem in the United States, no matter how much money is spent, efforts to further literacy fall flat. Yet the solution is there, just staring us in the face. The solution is to expose children to spoken and written language as soon as they’re born.

The problem with that is, of course, poverty. Parents who work the night shift don’t have the energy to read to and converse with their kids. Parents who work during the day aren’t home to play “This little piggy” and are too tired at the end of the day and too busy catching up on housework to read Goodnight Moon to their children at bedtime.

The results of this are dire. Kids need to hear words and to hear them in context. They need to fall in love with the sounds of consonants and vowels. They need to appreciate the humor of rhymes and the beauty of prose. They need to see an adult’s lips moving in conversation and witness the facial expressions and hand gestures that unwittingly accompany such speech.

They need to see and feel the emotions that go with the words: the laughter that goes with jokes, the crying that goes with the retelling of a sad story, and the gamut of emotions that cover the body of all the rest of the experiences and words that we know as human beings.

Moreover, small children need to have books in the home—books being something poor people often do not have. Kids need to hold books, to see text on pages, to watch a parent’s eyes move from letter to letter and word to word across a page. They need to see a parent’s pointing finger as they hear from a parent’s mouth, the words as they are written on the page, along with every nuance and inflection that attends them.

Educators and educational researchers have proven these facts many times over. The important years are the years before school. What happens after that is too late. Much too late.

A baby, from the time it is born, will mimic the shape of a parent’s mouth as sounds are made. An infant will turn its head in the direction of sound. Babies are thirsty for language. Naturally thirsty. We need only make words available to them from birth to pre-K.

One woman is trying to do just that. Dr. Dana Suskind, a cochlear-implant surgeon at the University of Chicago has launched, along with her colleagues, a program she has dubbed “30 Million Words.” The program brings language into the homes of low-income families by sending in experts to work with the parents and their children over a 13-week period. Parents are given a mini-course about the necessity to engage their preschoolers in dialogue whenever and wherever possible. They’re taught to have weekly literacy goals for their children. And they’re given the skills and the tools they need to make all that happen.

So, you may be wondering, where did Suskind get that 30-million number? It turns out that two Kansas University researchers, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, were able to crunch the numbers showing the disparity between poor kids and wealthier ones in their exposure to words. Welfare kids heard some 600 words an hour while children from working-class homes heard twice that many words. The children of professionals, on the other hand, heard 2,100 words per hour.

By the age of 3, a child from a low-income home would have been exposed to 30 million fewer words an hour than a child from a wealthy home.  Suskind’s idea was to create an intervention to supply those missing words. She conducted an initial pilot study with a small number of subjects that proved promising. The results of her research showed that the word count per hour had increased from 1,200 to approximately 1,600.

Well, it’s a start. It shows that something can be done—as long as it is done early enough, in the home, from the very beginning. There is no doubt that this is where the government should be extending its efforts and spending its budget: in the homes of infants from low income families. Give these parents books and teach them the importance of giving the gift of language to their children from day one and onward.

But until that time—the point at which the government finally recognizes the time and place where the beginnings of literacy are fostered, we’re stuck. Almost stuck, that is. We still have Suskind with her 30 Million Words project. And we have Kars4Kids, a nonprofit car donation program that supports and mentors whole families while making sure they have books and school supplies: those other tools of literacy.

Varda Epstein writes on education and parenting as the communications writer at Kars4Kids, a car donation charity whose proceeds fund children’s educational initiatives.