Brought to you by Karen Reynolds:
Chapter 2 starts with the discussion of Betty Hart and Todd Risley, who created a project to enhance the academic potential of children by intensively increasing their vocabulary. Vocabulary increased because of intervention but by kindergarten, the positive effects disappeared. Hart and Risley wanted to break the cycle of poverty through preschool education so in 1965 they created the Juniper Gardens Project, which was a program that included rigorous, vocabulary-enriched curriculum to increase school readiness and academic potential. It failed but that did not stop them. They wanted to know why it failed. Research and literature at that time was minimal. They would change that. Their insight into the role of early language exposure in relation to a child’s academic achievement changed the way many people thought. Most people were either team Chomsky or team Skinner regarding language acquisition.
The chapter goes on to discuss Hart and Risley’s study. Forty-two families with varying socioeconomic status were selected for the study and the children were followed from nine months of age to three years. Once each month participants were observed and audiotaped, notes were taken and data was analyzed. Data was then analyzed for another three years. They noticed similarities between families in all income levels and regularity regarding optimum conditions for language. The main difference was the numbers of words spoken in the homes. Two thousand words were spoken in homes with higher socioeconomic status while poorer children only heard about 600 words. Parent responses to their children were at 250 per hour for higher status families while lower status families responded to their children fewer than 50 times. These verbal interaction amounts remained constant throughout the study and this answered their question. They found that the essential factor that determined future learning of a child was the environment – how much and how parents talked to their children regardless of educational or economic status.
THE REAL DIFFERENCES
Another area Hart and Risley found in their study was evidence of the effect on IQ at three years of age. More talking equaled increased vocabulary, which then equaled higher IQ test scores. Variety of vocabulary heard and family conversation habits had an effect on language acquisition and IQ. After further study, it found that the amount of talk children had been exposed to through age three also predicted language and test scores at ages nine and ten. It was shocking to find that socioeconomic status was NOT a determining factor.
CAN WE BELIEVE THESE RESULTS
One argument against their findings was that their sample was of only thirty one-hour recordings and that it would be hard to accurately know how many words children knew. They often observed parents encouraging a child to speak rather than an assessment of acquired vocabulary. The study did confirm the impact of early language on school readiness and long-term achievement. Ultimately, some questioned if the small sample of children could really be predictive of a child’s future. As truly disadvantaged children were also omitted from the study, the achievement gap may have been different.
IS IT JUST QUANTITY
It found that if parents were encouraged to talk more, the quality of their language would also increase and increase a child’s exposure to a variety of words. A discussion of the “communication foundation” was presented regarding mother-child shared interactions and how these work together to create the optimal context for language learning. There was a discussion regarding the role of praise and criticism as well as the “Belief Gap” as being a key factor in the lack of achievement in children of poverty. The effect of poor early language environments also affected the brain’s processing speed, which is critical to learning. Those exposed to more talk had larger vocabularies and faster language processing speeds.
The chapter ended with the following: “It all came down to how well the brain has been nourished with words”. Something we all try to do daily with our students.