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Parent-Child Talk Is Crucial

Teachers have long known that poor children enter school far less prepared to learn than their wealthier peers.  The question is why.  

Until recently, the explanation was that low-income parents speak 30 million fewer words to their children than their wealthy peers by the time they are five years old.  It's not surprising, therefore, that more than half of poor children enter school with huge deficits in reading skills ("Poor Kids Are Starving for Words," The Atlantic, Oct. 16).  Researchers refer to this situation as the "word gap." 

But it's not only word quantity that matters but their quality ("Quality of Words, Not Quantity, Is Crucial to Language Skills, Study Finds," The New York Times, Oct. 16).  Although I never taught in elementary school, I've noticed how parents verbally interact with their children in public venues such as parks, restaurants and the like.  An on-going conversation I happened to overhear recently between a toddler and his mother was instructive. The mother frequently asked her child to respond.  For example: What color is the dog?  How many legs does the bird have?  After each such question, the mother praised or corrected the child.

I'm far from an expert on child rearing, but I think this kind of exchange is vital to prepare children for pre-K.  In contrast, I've observed mothers uttering hardly a word to their children, except to reprimand them for something they did or did not do.  Experts claim that the difference is due to lack of access to information by parents.  But I wonder if this is necessarily true.  Parents don't need a library of books or expensive software to sing to their children or engage them in simple conversation.  

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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