Working on the ‘word gap:’ Research finds that poor children learn less words

FARGO -- With a gaggle of 14 antsy 3- and 4-year-olds gathered in front of her, Sarah Nowacki is doing some ninja language teaching with a calendar. February is the word of the moment in Nowacki's Head Start classroom at the Southeast North Dakot...

FARGO - With a gaggle of 14 antsy 3- and 4-year-olds gathered in front of her, Sarah Nowacki is doing some ninja language teaching with a calendar.
February is the word of the moment in Nowacki’s Head Start classroom at the Southeast North Dakota Community Action Agency building here.
Nowacki works through sounds of the words for the month, day and date.
“What’s the ‘F’ sound,” she asks the group, having them sound it out.
“How many letters are in February?” Nowacki asks.
A few minutes later, Nowacki deftly moves on to talk about teeth, grabbing a jumbo model of pink-gummed choppers and holding it in her lap.
It’s been a casual and rapid-fire 10 or 12 minutes, yet Nowacki has introduced the students to several concepts, all while engaging them in a back-and-forth conversation.
It’s a sneaky, fun type of learning. But for many children, particularly those in low-income families, these interactions are often fewer, and farther in-between, than for children in middle-class or upper-income households.
The ‘word gap’

Research done in the mid-1990s found there may be a 30-million-word gap between the number of words children from poor families hear before they enter kindergarten, and the words children from middle- and upper-income families hear.
That gap puts children from poor families at an enormous disadvantage.
“That word gap does mean that some children are very much behind their peers,” said Erin Conwell, an assistant professor in the psychology department at North Dakota State University.
“It points to a need to make high-quality child care available to all families,” she said. “High-quality child care exposes them to educated professionals who are focused on the kids, not on life’s stresses.”
University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley published a study in 1995 that highlighted the link between the academic success of children at ages 9 or 10, and the words spoken with their parents early in life.
The study found that children from higher-income families heard 30 million more words in the first four years of life than poor children.
Children in poor families also received more negative reinforcement.
Children in upper-income families had six encouragements for every discouragement, working-class children had two encouragements for every discouragement, and children in poor families had two discouragements for every encouragement.
The Fargo-Moorhead area has programs to help adults become better parents and better language teachers.
Gearing Up For Kindergarten is a program created by North Dakota State University Extension to prepare 4- and 5-year-olds for school.
Typically, the first 45 minutes of a “Gearing Up” session has parents play and do crafts with their children.
The second half of the class has parents go to a separate room to get tips on improving parenting skills, handling stress and boosting their children’s learning.
Conwell said recent research points to the gap starting early.
Researchers at Stanford University reported in 2013 that differences between poor students and wealthier peers showed as early as 18 months.
Anne Fernald, a Stanford associate professor of psychology, studied the vocabulary and language processing speed of 18-month-olds, then tested them six months later to see how their skills had progressed.
At 18 months, toddlers in the higher-income group could identify the picture of an object in 750 milliseconds, while lower-income students were 200 milliseconds slower, on average.
Fernald told a Stanford publication that the difference seems tiny, “but it’s huge in terms of mental processing speed.”
At 24 months, both groups were faster, but the lower-income children had barely reached the 18-month level of processing efficiency of wealthier peers, Fernald found.
Still, “the good news is that regardless of economic circumstances, parents who use more and richer language with their infants can help their child to learn more quickly,” Fernald said.
Starting early

Back at the Head Start building, David Doty, director of Head Start Birth To Five, said 369 children are enrolled in eight buildings, from newborns to age 5. Nearly all of them are from families living at or below the federal poverty level.
The Head Start and Early Head Start efforts pay off, he said. At the start of the fall semester, 2013-14 test results show that 29 percent of the 2- to 3-year-olds, 28 percent of 3-year-olds and 39 percent of 4-year-olds met or exceeded expectations for literacy.
By the end of the spring semester, 69 percent of 2- to 3-year olds, 92 percent of 3-year-olds and 96 percent of 4-year-olds met or exceeded expectations for literacy.
“We have their future right now in our buildings. The future we have right here is the most critical element,” Doty said. “They are the most needy children. When we talk about the word gaps or the achievement gaps, they’re here.”

Related Topics: EDUCATION
Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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