Better Messaging on the ‘Word Gap’

Talk With, Not Just To, Children
Blog Post
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
April 20, 2020

The Learning Sciences Exchange (LSX) is a cross-sector fellowship program designed to bring together journalists, entertainment producers, policy influencers, and researchers around the science of early learning. As part of the program, our fellows contribute to various publications, including New America’s EdCentral blog and BOLD, the blog on learning development published by the Jacobs Foundation; and outside publications. Below we run an excerpt of the April 15th piece in BOLD: Talking With, Not Just To, Children Helps Them Learn,” by LSX Fellow Meredith Rowe.

As an academic, one of the most challenging, yet important tasks I am faced with is to be able to communicate research findings to the general public in a way that is digestible. Unfortunately, academics are not typically trained in this translational process. Sometimes we get too bogged down in the details and the work never breaks through to be taken up by the world of education or parenting. Other times, our research gets out, but if we are not careful about how we explain our results, parents and educators get a distorted view.

An example of the latter has lately been a big one in my field of study: I conduct research on the types of early experiences that promote children’s learning. The primary message I want to send to parents is that talking with children builds their vocabularies and knowledge. But as a result of the press around the documented “word gap,” or the large average differences in how much parents from high versus low socioeconomic backgrounds talk with their children, parents might feel pressure to continuously talk to their children.

Perhaps even more importantly, this isn’t all about learning words – it’s about building knowledge, as words bring with them concepts and ideas. For example, research by Elizabeth Gunderson and Susan Levine, researchers at Temple University and the University of Chicago, shows that using more number talk with children, especially numbers beyond one, two and three, helps them learn math concepts before they even get to school. And, I don’t mean “teaching” them math using flash cards. I mean just using number words in general conversations, like when counting how many cheerios are on the high chair during snack time. These everyday conversations help children learn math!

Similarly, research by Robyn Fivush at Emory University, Elaine Reese at the University of Otago and their colleagues shows that you can build your children’s memory and ability to take somebody else’s perspective by simply talking with them about your shared past experiences, like your trip to the grocery store the day before, or what you saw when you were walking through the park.

To continue reading, see the full text of the article on the BOLD blog.

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