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Providence Talks: Building Vocabulary from Day One

By Providence Mayor Angel Taveras
July 28, 2014

Here in Providence, we’ve made early childhood learning a top priority. We have no other choice: data shows that two-thirds of our children arrive for the first day of kindergarten already behind on national literacy benchmarks. Our efforts to ensure that every child is reading on grade level by the end of third grade have won Providence the All-America Award for grade level reading from the National Civic League.

But every day more research confirms that how children develop in the early years before they arrive in school is a critical factor in future school performance and success later in life. For a child’s vocabulary to develop fully, children need to hear at least 21,000 words per day. But children in the lowest income bracket fall short of that benchmark by more than 8,000 words every day. By the time a child growing up in a low-income household reaches their fourth birthday, he or she will have heard between about 20 and 30 million fewer words than their peers in middle- and high-income households.

Talking to one’s baby doesn’t just promote vocabulary development, but also brain development more broadly. At birth, a child will have developed all of the neurons that will carry him or her through adult life. In the first year of a baby’s life, brain size doubles, and at the age of three, the brain is already at 80 percent of its adult volume. Additionally, synapses are formed at a much faster rate between the ages of zero and three. Every verbal interaction a parent or caregiver has with a baby strengthens the neural connections within the baby’s rapidly growing brain.

Research shows that most children learn at the same rate in school. Due to disparities in vocabulary, low-income students start out at a disadvantage. Each summer, with unequal access to summer learning opportunities, this achievement gap widens. This growing inequality can lead to disparities in school readiness, long-term health outcomes, earnings, and family stability for years to come.

Our award-winning “Providence Talks” program — funded with a $5 million investment from Bloomberg Philanthropies — is designed to close the 30-million-word gap and ensure that children from low-income families begin school on a level playing field with their peers. Providence Talks aims to empower families with the additional tools and resources necessary to help build their children’s vocabularies from day one. It is the first citywide effort to close the word gap.

Providence Talks combines new information technology with existing effective home visitation programs. Participating families receive a small “word pedometer” that generates charts and graphs showing the number of words and conversations that their child engages with over the course of a day. This information is shared with families by a home visitor, and coaching sessions help them strengthen their household auditory environment. Free books and other resources are designed to help prepare our youngest learners for success in kindergarten and beyond.

Our program is just getting under way, but preliminary data demonstrates dramatic gains in word and conversation count — gains that we think will make a difference in years to come. Over two years, the program will expand from the initial pilot, now open to 75 early head start families, to a citywide scale. We hope that Providence Talks can become a model for other cities, so that more of our nation’s children from low-income families enter school’s starting gate on a level playing field with their wealthier peers.