Monday, January 10, 2011

Poverty Diminishes Vocabulary

Image by Shanelkalicharan
A common theme in my writing is how much poverty impacts our students and their academic success. On average, middle class and higher income kids simply do better in school and on standardized exams than lower income kids. The reasons for this are complex and have not been fully explored. However, we do know that wealth affects health and cognitive development, social development and language acquisition, creating an achievement gap that exists before kids have even entered school. Two seminal pieces of research bear this out: Unequal at the Starting Gate, by David Burkam and Valerie Lee, and Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, by Betty Hart and Todd Risely. The latter work was discussed today on NPR, including an interview with coauthor Betty Hart. You can hear the interview or read the transcript at Closing the Achievement Gap with Baby Talk.

Arne Duncan, Bill Gates and many other Ed Deformers claim to be color and class blind, arguing that all kids can succeed in school, if we only provide quality teachers and schools. Many teachers enter the profession with these same assumptions. Likewise, when Betty Hart first started working with low income preschoolers, she believed she could help them transcend their limitations. Together with Todd Risley, she tried to improve the vocabularies of 4-year-olds in a low income preschool. However, after years of effort, they realized that they weren’t making much progress because they were catching the kids too late.

Image by ECohen
Shockingly, by the time kids are four, the effects of familial wealth have already made their mark on a child’s vocabulary. But Hart and Risely wanted to know why and they wanted to know how early these effects started to occur. So they followed 40 families from different income levels over the course of their children’s first three years, recording what the children said.

It took 10 years to transcribe and analyze their tapes. They found that children in welfare homes heard an average of 600 words per hour, compared to 2,100 in homes of professionals. By the time kids are four, this adds up to a total of about 13 million words heard by poor kids and 48 million words for affluent kids. Thus, before they have even entered kindergarten, there is a significant gap in language acquisition that affects school readiness.

Hart and Risely’s work was published in 1995 and led many in child development to rethink how they could work with parents to improve children’s language development. An important follow up to their research was conducted by Alan Mendelsohn, a pediatrician at New York’s Bellevue Hospital. In this study, Mendelsohn, et al, enrolled 675 mother-infant pairs in a randomized controlled experiment that compared two interventions that occurred during pediatric checkups: the Video Interaction Project and Building Blocks. A control group received standard pediatric treatment. For details, please see Study: Doctor Visits Give Opportunity for School Readiness Check-up.

All three groups of mother-child dyads received books and literacy materials from the Reach Out and Read program. Parents in the Building Blocks group also received developmental questionnaires and newsletters suggesting additional reading and play activities they could do at home to encourage literacy development. Those in the Video Interaction Project also met with child development experts at each of 15 wellness visits during their child’s first 3 years. During these visits, mothers were videotaped playing with their children. The child development experts then debriefed the videotapes with the mothers and coached them to help them become more effective in their interactions with their children.

By the age of 6 months, the infants in the video intervention group had significantly higher scores than those in the control group on the StimQ infant test, which measures pre-literacy activities. Those in the Building Blocks program had slightly higher scores than those in the control group. In summary, Mendelsohn’s work indicates that coaching parents can help them become better at communicating with their infants and improve their early language development.

It should be pointed out, though, that Mendelsohn’s program, even if fully implemented by pediatricians across the country, cannot alleviate all the negative effects that poverty has on school success. First, low income families are less likely to receive prenatal and postnatal care or regular checkups, thus precluding many families from receiving coaching during pediatric visits. Also, poverty negatively affects children in a variety of ways that cannot be mitigated solely through better parental communication. For example, poor children are much more likely to suffer malnutrition, low birth weights, lead or other environmental poisonings, and anemia, each of which can impair cognitive development and lead to learning disabilities. Financial insecurity creates chronic stress that can impair the immune system, memory and learning, and increase absenteeism. Low income families are much less likely to be able to provide ongoing extracurricular enrichment activities like travel, summer camp, art classes and athletics. Therefore, to really close the achievement gap requires a social movement that succeeds in closing the wealth gap.


  1. Thanks Chris. I appreciate the support.

    I also appreciate you turning me on to your prolific blog, Education Matters. Check it out, Readers, it's listed in my blog roll.