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How to Talk to One's Children

Children from impoverished backgrounds enter kindergarten already three months behind the national average in reading and never catch up, according to Education Department data. That comes as no surprise because new research shows that brain development is affected by the interaction between parents and children from as early as birth ("Trying to Close a Knowledge Gap, Word by Word," The New York Times, Mar. 26).

Yet I think too little emphasis is placed on how parents converse with their children. A study by Meredith Rowe and Susan Goldin-Meadow of the University of Chicago found that gesturing, among other things, is important. Parents from high socioeconomic backgrounds tend to gesture more when speaking to their children.  For example, they may point to a bird in the park when using a new word.  This reinforces vocabulary.  As the director of parenting resources at a nonprofit group that promotes healthy development in the early years put it: "We don't want parents talking at babies.  We want parents talking with babies."

As a result, by age three there is a 30 million-word gap between the vocabularies of children from professional and welfare families.  Children whose parents are on welfare hear 616 words per hour on average.  This compares with 2,153 words per hour on average that children from college educated parents hear.  One way to narrow the gap is by reading to children as they follow the words in a book.  But this strategy assumes that working class parents have the time, energy and education to do so on a regular basis.  

It's probably more realistic under the circumstances for these parents to engage their young children in frequent conversations. For example, they could ask questions about a particular incident and encourage them to talk about it.  Let's not forget that education is a partnership between school and home.  Whatever takes place before and after children enter the classroom is crucial to understanding the achievement gap. Yet we continue to place almost the entire responsibility on the shoulders of teachers.

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