The city of Providence, Rhode Island is embarking on a bold initiative to narrow the "word gap": young children in families of lower socioeconomic status tend to hear fewer words in their home environment than higher-income counterparts, leading to inequalities in academic success when they enter school. Providence has won a $5 million grant to address this problem by means of a high-tech vocabulary intervention program, as our own Ben Zimmer writes in his latest Boston Globe column.
Ever since a small but groundbreaking study in 1995, it’s been accepted wisdom that a child’s academic success is directly related to the amount of talk the child hears from adults in the first few years of life. Children in higher-income families hear more language than those in lower-income families; this disparity, the theory runs, leads to a “word gap” that puts poorer children at a disadvantage when they enter school.
Now, the city of Providence is set to put this theory to the test through new high-tech means, in the much larger setting of a city population—and then try to narrow the word gap for children in real time. Earlier this month, the city won the $5 million grand prize in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, based on its proposal for a project called Providence Talks. The plan is to equip low-income children with recording devices that calculate how many words they hear, and then coach parents on how to boost their children’s language exposure.
Through Providence Talks, researchers and policy makers are likely to learn much more about whether pulling this language lever can really help level the academic playing field. At the same time, however, by asking scores of regular parents to opt into massive, data-driven recording and analysis of all the language their children hear in their first few years, and then encouraging them to change the personal matter of how they talk to their kids as a result, they are launching a project of unprecedented scope and audacity—one that opens up fascinating questions about language, social engineering, privacy, and parenting.
For Providence, the needs are pressing: as Mayor Angel Taveras and schools Superintendent Susan Lusi explained in a video pitch for the program, only one in three children in the city enter school at the appropriate literacy benchmarks, and closing the word gap in disadvantaged families is seen as an efficient, early way to change that. Taveras told me that early intervention appeals to him as a graduate of the Head Start pre-kindergarten program. (He’s also closely watching the linguistic progress of his own 14-month-old daughter.) “I really wanted to do something on early childhood education because of what I went through,” he said. “I felt this was a big issue we could attack on a citywide level.”
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