Language Nutrition and The 30 Million Word Gap

I have had the good fortune to attend several pediatric conferences in the past few weeks, and I hope to share over several posts some of the more interesting new research and advances in childhood development and public health campaigns  with you all.

I recently attended a session in a conference about my state’s efforts to improve public health outcomes through impacting disparities in school-aged children’s performance.  Essentially, there is data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, that has essentially said when we compare college graduates to individuals who have not finished high school (and no, I don’t know if or how homeschoolers were included in any of this data or student who have attended technical programs), this is what was found:

  • college graduates live at least five years longer than those who have not finished high school (female college graduates 83.5 years versus females who have not finished high school 78.4 years; male college graduates 79.7 years versus males who have not finished high school 72.9).
  • the infant mortality rate for infants who are born to women who never graduated high school is nearly double that of women who graduated from college
  • college graduates have a 1.3 percent reduction in diabetes, a 2.2 percent decrease in heart disease, a 5 percent reduction in obesity, and a 12 percent reduction in smoking compared to individuals who have not finished high school.

The biggest predictor to academic success is the quality and quantity of words spoken to the baby in the first three years of life. (NOTE:  This is from research; for those of you who are concerned regarding this statement and Waldorf Early Years education please see my comments in the comment box below).  There has been research regarding “The 30 Million Word Gap” stretching back to a study published in 1995 by Hart and Risley and publicized since then in such places as The New York Times.  Essentially, it has been found that there could be a difference of 30 million words in the language environment over the period of the first three years  of a child’s life.   This means that children from vulnerable families enter kindergarten with half the vocabulary of their peers.  In the public school environment, there have been links between third grade proficiency as strong indicators of academic and economic success, a decreased risk of incarceration, pregnancy, violence and unemployment and the improvement of health and less risk of chronic disease, so this gap in language becomes more critical.  Public school third graders who cannot read at grade level are four times more likely to drop out of high school.  In my state, only 34 percent of the children are reading proficiently and on grade level in third grade (which also makes me wonder if it is only 34 percent, which means the majority of third graders are “at risk” , should we be measuring reading proficiency in third grade? However, I guess that is another topic!)

Early language exposure is critical for a baby’s healthy brain development and seen as part of increasing a small child’s vocabulary, school readiness and yes, success.  The most effective thing a parent can do is talk with their baby.  A screen will NOT take the place of talking with a baby or toddler or preschoolers. 

So, my state is rolling out the first state-wide public health campaign in the United States to increase adequate language for brain development, called “language nutrition”.  It will emphasize the power of interaction and that NO ELECTRONIC DEVICE can match  engaged human interaction.  The  partners collaborating on this are many, including Emory School of Nursing, the Marcus Autism Center, Department of Education, Bright Start, Georgia Tech, Talk With Me Baby, Get Georgia Reading, the Atlanta Speech School, Georgia Pathway to Language and Literacy, Emory University School of Medicine, The Georgia Coalition for English Learners, Georgia Department of Public Health, and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and will pattern off the model of the “Back to Sleep” campaign and other public health campaigns.   You can see more about the campaign at the Talk With Me Baby website.

Nurses are especially being targeted as changemakers for families in this campaign as 99 percent of expecting and new parents will see a nurse at some point between the 3rd trimester of pregnancy through the first year of life. The goal is to help parents see that they are their baby’s first and best teacher and to give parents strategies to overcome any barriers to language acquisition for their children.  In our state, 30 percent of children are in childcare but 70 percent are not in childcare or are in childcare in an informal setting, so parents have to believe that they can make an impact on their child’s language abilities (and turn off their phones! This was cited over and over by the health care providers in my course as a source of frustration in trying to connect with parents and in trying to get parents to connect with their babies and toddlers!)

There have been several projects similar to this in different areas of the United States, including The 30 Million Word Project, Providence Talks  (based in Providence, Rhode Island) and Too Small To Fail, but this is the first state-wide campaign.   My international readers may find it strange that issues such as these are often addressed at the state level and not the federal level as a result of our governmental structure.  Overall, it will be interesting to see what happens as a result of this campaign over the next few years.  I believe the entirety of the campaign will take complete effect by 2020.


13 thoughts on “Language Nutrition and The 30 Million Word Gap

  1. Thanks for this post. I feel pretty strongly about this issue, and I think it should be stressed that baby talk is for BABIES. We shouldn’t be talking to toddlers in that cutesy sing-songy voice. I forget where I read this recently, but the same high-pitched, sing-songy voice that gets the attention of a baby, disengages the attention of a toddler (according to research). Using regular language (not baby-words like boo-boo, ouchie, potty) and pronouns (!) needs to happen much sooner in a child’s life to develop their brain and vocabulary.

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  3. “The biggest predictor to academic success is the quality and quantity of words spoken to the baby in the first three years of life.” This is an interesting piece of research and I wonder what thoughts you have on this, Carrie? It seems to contradict the Waldorf advice about adults using “too many words”.

    In response to Cheryl’s comment, my mum refused to use “baby talk” with me even as a tiny baby and consequently it seemed unnatural for me to use baby talk when I became a parent, so I didn’t use it either. My son was seen by the child health nurse to have an extraordinary vocabulary for his age at 18 months, and I think this was a result of talking to him a lot, very little exposure to electronic speech (TV, radio etc), and not using baby talk. Babies make their own words and that’s different, I understood what my son was trying to say and responded as if he had used the “right” word. We communicated well together, it really felt like we were conversing, even at 1 year old.

    • Hi Licoricelovinglady,
      I really don’t think this contradicts Waldorf at all – it is really aimed at children who are not getting enough words in a quality way – ie, screens, not a lot of variety in spoken language, etc. I think what Waldorf teaches us is how to set a boundary in terms of not running a stream of consciousness of our adult lives onto our children, but bringing in the rhymes, the verses, the songs that connect the child to the natural rhythm of the day and year that we are actively living. It is an economy of words capturing what we are actively doing, not the mumbo jumbo that flits through our heads all day long.
      I think this campaign is aimed to try and level the playing field in a public school setting for vulnerable children.

  4. Thanks for sharing this information. Unfortunately, my school district is dealing with the “third grade reading level” issue by increasing the amount of academic work required of kindergarteners. Their logic being, “If they’re not reading at grade level by third grade, then we better start earlier.” Oh, well. Thank goodness it is also a state which has laws that are friendly to homeschoolers!

    • Chris,
      I totally agree with you regarding third grade! As far as the intersection of Waldorf education and this public health campaign, I love talking pictorially and living actively as well, and this post is not meant to be confusing to Waldorf parents at all. I think as Waldorf parents who are singing, using verses, storytelling…we have it covered. Remember, this public health campaign is aimed at children who are vulnerable and not hearing a great quantity of “quality” words…this is where the gap comes in. Yes, the pictorial back posts are great ones for Waldorf parents.
      Many blessings,

  5. I think this could be a confusing issue for mothers who are new to Waldorf. A hallmark of working with children in the Early Years in Waldorf is an economy with words. I have always liked Donna Simmons’ phrase “Talking pictorially and living actively” with young children. Often a young child’s behavior is better when we talk to them less! Singing, nursery rhymes, using sing-song visual imagery or rhymes for transition times, etc. are so much healthier for young children than an endless stream of adult words. I would encourage moms with young children to look at some of your back posts on this by using your search feature and entering the word “pictorially”. I think you’ve nailed this issue right on the head by encouraging parents to turn off computers, devices, and television, and to be present with their child.

  6. Hi Carrie,

    Thank you for sharing this. I remember the Hart and Risley study from my studies years ago. I am in absolute agreement that there is no room for media in the lives of young children. What’s is interesting to me is that the EC teachers at our Waldorf school talk about how we often talk too much to our children who are still young, but I have not yet heard the explanation for it and I am not far enough along in my reading in Waldorf Education to have found out the answer myself. I understand gestures can be more powerful than talking too much. What are your thoughts on how much to talk to children ages 3-6 and can you give an explanation why? Many thanks!

    • Hi Sara!
      I think what Waldorf gives us is the gift of fine and descriptive vocabulary that is illustrating what we are actively DOING in the rhythm of the day and the year…not just a stream of consciousness flowing out of an adult head. And it does it in this way that keeps the child in a dreamy state, through verse, song, rhyme and yes..silence. I do not believe this campaign contradicts this, but is instead trying to get families whose children will be vulnerable in a public school educational setting to come into the school setting with a pre-literate base that is currently not be attained and impacts them throughout the lower school years because of increased academic demands…I hope that makes sense. What we want to bring to Waldorf children is pictorial and active phrases centered around the concrete things we are doing, seeing and experiencing, moving. This is, of course, the birthright for all children, but I think this campaign is at a public health, mainstream level that has an educational goal and educational parameters to be measured…
      Some of the back posts on pictorial speaking may be helpful to you, and also Steiner’s lectures regarding the development of movement, speech and thinking (in that order). Konig also wrote a good book about the first three years of life.

  7. Thank you, Carrie and others, for your replies. That makes absolute sense and I am happy to know that you have more to say in your older posts about talking pictorially, for this does not seem to come naturally to me. I look forward to diving into it!

  8. Thanks for sharing, Carrie! Just a little comment on the discussion whether this is in conflict with the Waldorf philosophy or not. I live in Europe, and the study has been referred to in many newspapers/articles the last weeks. What was said here as well, is that this is not only about how much we as parents talk (directly) to our child/baby, but the amount of words/language that the child will be exposed to in a total, during the day.

    This “shower of language” can also be through other activities such as books, tales, rhymes, songs, verses, etc. At least here, there was a great emphasize on the importance of reading to your child (also older children). So, in my opinion, there should be no contradiction between the Waldorf education, with verses, ryhmes, songs and stories and this theory. In fact, I think the Waldorf approach is probably already a great “language shower”.

    What I found very optimistic about the study, is that improving a childs vocabulary does not need to be so difficult! This is something everybody (or at least most of us) can do. But we need to know how important this is. I guess it boils down to taking the time of being together, connecting, sharing stories and doing things together as a family.

    • Solina,
      I love that image of a “shower of language” –thank you so much for sharing. I think this attention to language, in an era of television and screens is especially important and a shower of “real” language may become more and more important for all children . Waldorf Education provides such a rich base for literacy! I also think it points out the importance of doing things at a child’s level, not just spewing adult consciousness onto them, but providing fuel for the imagination – which Waldorf also does so well!
      Blessings and thank you so much for writing in,

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