Policy Resource

Helping Parents Move Beyond the Word Gap

Oct 18, 2014

The “Word Gap” has come to symbolize the gulf that can separate very young children who have rich, regular opportunities for positive early experiences with language from those who do not.

As I pondered the blog post to accompany the launch of “Beyond the Word Gap,”I kept returning to what this all means for parents. Learning to parent is hard work and parents are constantly faced with new information, new science, and new strategies to do it “better.” It reminds me of when I brought my first-born child home from the hospital, put him down, and turned to my mother (my main source of parenting support), and said, “Now what do I do?” That seems to me to be the question parents might ask when they learn that the language their children hear as babies can affect their academic success later on. So I asked our amazing ZERO TO THREE parenting experts, Claire Lerner and Rebecca Parlakian, to write about the Word Gap from the perspective of parents. - Patty Cole, Director of Government Relations, ZERO TO THREE.

The “Word Gap” has come to symbolize the gulf that can separate very young children who have rich, regular opportunities for positive early experiences with language from those who do not. Science tells us that early language and literacy skills are some of the most important predictors of later success in school, and that as a group, children in families with lower socioeconomic means know far fewer words than their more privileged peers.

So how do we close the word gap? By helping parents understand that the development of early language and literacy skills starts at birth, with babies’ innate drive to communicate—to let the trusted adults in their lives know what they need, think and feel. Babies communicate from day one through sounds (crying, cooing, squealing), facial expressions (eye contact, smiling, grimacing) and actions (moving legs in excitement or distress, and later, gestures like pointing.) When the trusted adults in their lives respond to these signals, they are letting babies know they are loved and understood, which motivates them to keep on communicating. That is the foundation of what leads to strong language and literacy skills.

Developing language and literacy skills is not an academic exercise that involves saying a certain number of words to children each day. A robust body of research shows that strong language and literacy skills develop when, starting in the first days and months of life, parents and other trusted caregivers engage babies in back-and-forth communication, both verbally and non-verbally, as they play together and go through their daily routines. This helps children understand language in the context of their experience, which gives words meaning. It is the quality of the child’s exposure to language, not just the quantity of words children hear, that makes a difference.

What does this look like on the ground? A mother shows her 4-month-old a squeaky toy. She talks about the noise it makes and how she is moving it closer and then farther away. At first, baby kicks his arms and legs happily, and reaches out to grasp the toy. Mom brings it close enough for him to grab and says, “Here you go! You want to check it out. How does it feel? What sounds does it make?” The baby looks at mom and smiles, and then explores the toy. But after a few minutes, the baby turns away and begins to fuss. Mom says, “I think you’re telling me you are all done with Mr. Squeaky. Let’s put him away and have a cuddle.” Or, a 15-month-old points at a tree as she takes a walk with her dad. Dad says, “You see the squirrel running so fast up that tree. He’s a speedy squirrel! Run, squirrel, run!” The toddler looks at her dad, smiles, looks back at the squirrel and says, “Skerl.” Dad responds, “That’s right, it’s a squirrel.”

Parents today are stressed enough. For some parents, the worry is about having enough food on the table and adequate care for their children while they work. Others are highly anxious about giving their child a leg-up in the race to have the smartest kid who gets into the best preschool and the most prestigious college. Parents from all walks of life tell us that the pressures of parenting often outweigh the joy. So let’s not burden parents with the added worry that they aren’t saying enough words to their children every day. Instead, let’s focus on what really matters: tuning in to children; reading and responding sensitively to their cues—both verbal and non-verbal; engaging in reciprocal back-and-forth play and interaction; and incorporating lots of rich language into everyday moments. That’s what connecting—and communicating—is all about.

To learn more, visit www.beyondthewordgap.org.

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