When researchers who study early literacy and language talk about the “30 million words gap,” they are referring to a landmark education study from 20 years ago that found that by age 3, children from low-income families have heard 30 million fewer words than more affluent children, putting them at an educational disadvantage before they even begin school.
A recent White House conference on “bridging the word gap” shared new research suggesting that simply exposing low-income children to a higher quantity of language is not the best approach to overcome the deficits they face. The quality of the communication between children and their parents, teachers and caregivers, the researchers say, is of much greater importance than the number of words a child hears.
Early literacy and language keys, such as using symbols (“Look, a dog!”); rituals (“Want a bottle after your bath?”); and conversational fluency (“Yes, that is a bus!”), give children from birth to age eight the ability to practice “fluid conversations around shared rituals and objects, like pretending to have morning coffee together or using the banana as a phone,” Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, an expert on child language development and lead author of the study, told the New York Times. “That is the stuff from which language is made.”
The National Association for the Education of Young Children defines “early childhood” as occurring before the age of eight, and it is during this period that a child goes through the most rapid phase of growth and development.
Their brains develop faster than at any other point in their lives, so these years are critical. The foundations for their social skills, self-esteem, perception of the world and moral outlook are established during these years, as well as the development of cognitive skills.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has directed pediatricians to encourage parents and caregivers to read to children daily beginning in infancy. In addition to height, weight and immunization checks during routine visits, pediatricians now ask parents if they are reading to their children. This is the first time the AAP has directly recognized literacy as part of a pediatrician’s role in caring for children – a big step in the right direction for early literacy and education advocates everywhere.
Education professionals, especially those at the Pre-K through Grade 3 level, play an important role in the development of language and literacy. Assumption’s education majors begin observing and assisting in the classroom as early as freshmen year, culminating in full-time student teaching senior year. This hands-on experience positions graduates to enter the workforce with the skills needed to address issues such as language and literacy.