Providence Talks — A City’s Plan to Close the 30 Million Word Gap

This Review is based on the article “The ‘word gap’ and 1 city’s plan to close it” published by the Brookings Institute and written by Elizabeth Mann

If we sincerely want to put an end to this country’s academic achievement gap, we must be willing to focus our attention on that child’s earliest language environment — the home. Research has shown that as early as the age of 2, children born into poverty can fall behind as much as 6 months compared to wealthier peers when it comes to vocabulary development and language processing skills.

In 2003, University of Kansas researches Betty Hart and Todd Risley released a report on their findings from 2 ½ years of observing 42 families with 1 or 2 year olds across various socio-economic levels. By the time children turned three years of age, they observed trends in vocabulary growth, amount of talk and style of interaction were well established and clearly suggested widening gaps to come. What they discovered has given birth to the term the 30 Million Word Gap — by the time a child born into poverty turns 4 years of age, she will have heard or be familiar with 30 million less words compared to a child born into a professional or wealthy family. As much as 98% of the words a child used were derived from their parents’ vocabularies according to Hart and Risley’s observations.

In the 2013 Mayors Challenge, Bloomberg Philanthropies awarded the grand prize and a $5 million grant to the city of Providence, R.I., for an innovative plan to reduce this word gap. In May, four years after the competition, Bloomberg released preliminary results of the program. Here’s what you need to know:

  1. Providence is a city of less than 200,000, yet at the time of winning the Mayors Challenge, 85% of public schools students qualified for free or reduced lunch and only 66% of HS students were graduating in 4 years
  2. Barely 30% of children entering kindergarten were meeting benchmark literacy skills
  3. “Providence Talks” is an in-home visitation program pairing family coaches with families. During each visit, the coach and family would discuss the data recorded by the LENA (Language Environment Analysis) device, a word pedometer that monitors and improves word counts in low-income homes. The LENA tracks all words spoken in a child’s environment and conversational turns, helping to measure the give and take in dialogue between parent and child.
  4. 1,600 toddlers participated in the program thus far. By May, 60% of children heard more words at the conclusion of the program compared to the start. On average, the number of words a child heard in a given day increased by 50%. And 97% of parents rated the program with satisfactory or highly satisfactory marks.

Successes from programs like Providence Talks can have significant implications for cities across the country who are struggling to address an ever widening word gap. We know the home is the child’s earliest language environment. If we can intervene at the earliest stages of language development for our children, we can hopefully put a stop to the 30 Million Word Gap before it even starts.


Leave us a comment below letting us know what you are doing at the home to support your little one’s language development. Was this information helpful? How can you be more diligent about increasing and improving the quality AND quantity of conversations you have with your children.

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