The 32 Million Word Gap by Age 3

How many words?

I recently attended a fundraising breakfast for The Children’s Center, where President and CEO, Deborah Matthews listed a few facts about the many children the agency serves in its mental health, foster care and Head Start programs. She referred to a startling statistic:  By the time an impoverished child reaches age 3, he (or she) has heard about 30 million fewer words than a child from a more affluent family.

What?

She was referring to a study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley called The Early Catastrophe, the 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3.The study was done in 1995 to learn why children in Head Start showed only small to moderate advances in the areas of literacy and vocabulary, and none in math skills. They found that environment trumped genes, hands down.

Based on their elaborate study of 42 low, middle and high income families, Hart and Risley found that poor kids were getting stuck in an intellectual rut long before they turned three- and four-years old. Data showed that speaking, reading and listening to children early and often was the norm for professional families who averaged 215,000 words per child per week. A working class family averaged 125,000 words per week and a welfare family averaged 62,000 words a week. By third grade, vocabulary growth was on par with levels attained through Kindergarten.   

Tone and complexity of words were also measured. The study found:

·         In the first four years after birth, the average child from a professional family receives 560,000 more instances of encouraging feedback than discouraging feedback;

·         A working- class child receives 100,000 more encouragements than discouragements;

·         A welfare child receives 125,000 more discouragements than encouragements.

I’m writing a children’s book that I hope will be one of many that parents use to help their kids to learn to love reading.  Studies like this have reshaped my mission: I want to help close the 30 million word gap and encourage others, whether parents or not, to do the same.  I also want more people to talk about intelligence: it’s not fixed, it’s learned.

I’ve raised two children and have had my own share of child rearing challenges. Even now, I cringe at some of the ways that I communicated with them—sometimes I was too short and too inattentive—but I always tried to make the next encounter better than the last.

If we’re serious—and I believe that so many of us are—about bridging the education gap in minority and low income communities, and preparing our kids for a better future, let’s make it cool to talk about stuff like this, and find ways to change it as Literacy Empowers All Families (LEAF) points out here: http://alamosa.k12.co.us/evans/assets/files/ssanchez/Word%20Gap.pdf

Information is power…always has been, always will be.

New books coming soon!

Taj Cleans the Garage is a new children’s book by Renee Prewitt and illustrated by Michaela Nienaber. Taj always wants new cars for his train set, so his parents encourage him to start earning the money to buy them. Much to his surprise, Taj’s new chore turns into an exciting adventure where he is the only one who can save the day.

Coming in September:

Malcolm Mows the Lawn, a new children’s book by Renee Prewitt and illustrated by Scott Everett is about a little boy who wants a new car for his train.  His Mom suggests that he mow the lawn to earn enough money to buy it himself. Join Malcolm as his new chore takes him on a great adventure. Who knew that working could be so exciting? Coming July 2013.

Note: Subsequent studies have shown that children in Head Start achieve high scores in many of the soft skills that employers value today, such as teamwork, planning, negotiation and task completion.

Bedtime Rituals

I saw a story the other day about reading to your children that started with, “It’s pretty hard to screw up reading to a child.”  Have fun and engage your audience, the author said. Oh yeah, I thought. I certainly did that.

When my son and daughter were little, one of my favorite parts of the day was bedtime. Yes, I’ll admit that I was exhausted, and part of me hoped that their day full of questions, play dates, and emotional highs and lows had worn them out too. But there was also a much more compelling reason that gave nighttime a higher purpose. The end of the day meant impressing upon them that they had played as hard as they could, and that they needed their rest so they could start all over again tomorrow. It meant tucking them in and reading them a bedtime story and I always looked forward to that.

This was a time when I had their full attention and they had mine. It was a cozy time. Bathed and in their favorite jammies, I would have one or both of them entrenched under each arm. No television or video games or phone calls, this was “us” time where my voice and their occasional giggles and questions were all we heard. That was, unless I read Octopus Hug by Laurence Pringle. This was not a bedtime story!

This was a rousing picture book story that was one of those rare gems that appealed to both boys and girls.  Here is how the author described it:

Octopus Hug is a charming look at the games a father plays with his children when he’s left in charge for the evening. The games are wonderfully active — and interactive. The dad gets down on the floor with Becky and Jesse, pretends to be different animals and objects, and encourages the children to join in. The fun is still going on when the mom returns home, so she gets to experience the games, too.

My kids loved that book. The first time I read it, I would pretend to be one of the animals in the story, making bold sounds and I would pick them up, rock them, roll on the floor, and encourage them to do the same. Night after night I would ask, “What do we want to read?” and they would say, “Octopus Hug!” and then settle into their favorite places to be roared at until finally, the giant octopus (me) grabbed them and rocked them back and forth in a victorious hug. There was lots of laughter and running around, but the innocence of it all always warmed my heart. It still does. Of course, I quickly learned to follow up with another story that calmed them down because this book defeated the whole purpose of a bedtime story!

I still have Octopus Hug on my book shelf. Sometimes give a copy as a gift to parents and grandparents who are welcoming new little people into their lives. It is one of those books that underscores that all important message that we want all of our children to embrace: Reading is fun. And we all know that children learn by example.

Congratulations to my daughter, Lisa, who is a member of the 2013 graduating class of Wayne State University, and last night, was recognized as an Honors College graduate.

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-04-02/features/sc-fam-0402-reading-to-kids-20130402_1_child-silly-books-age-appropriate-books

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