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Simple Ideas, Big Impact: Providence Takes On the 'Word Gap'

Hi readers! I hope you had wonderful holidays (Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Solstice, Festivus, or whatever you choose to celebrate) and that 2013 was a great year for all of you. By now many of you are probably heading out to New Years plans, but I didn't want to close the year without remarking on this interesting little article from NPR.

According to a 1990 study of families all over the economic spectrum, which measured how many words (numerically) were spoken in these households, kids from low-income families were exposed to 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers by age three. The ramifications of this "word gap" (as the deficit was called) are far-reaching: the achievement gap between rich and poor kids is compounded year after year by an increasing deficit of words. One oft-suggested solution is more preschool or "Head Start" programs, which would certainly be beneficial, except that funding is routinely cut for such programming, rendering early childhood education inaccessible to those most in need of such interventions.

Another solution, pioneered by the city of Providence, R.I., is called "Providence Talks." The program provides parents of young kids with small recording devices to measure the number of words spoken between a parent and child ("word pedometers"), and the rate at which questions are asked and answered between them. By analyzing this data, program administrators aim to make parents more aware of opportunities they may have to engage their children in productive conversation--about simple activities, such as bath-time--and thus facilitate verbal learning at home.

The program seeks to provide intervention at an earlier stage than even Head Start programs would be able (a common critique of preschool as a solution to the word gap problem is that by the time poor student arrive, they are already behind their more affluent peers), thus hopefully staving off a compounded effect of low achievement. Moreover, Providence Talks will empower parents by enabling them to play more active roles in their young children's cognitive development.

I like seeing this type of innovation, which targets broad-spectrum problems early (hopefully nipping them in the bud) and does not--at least in theory--require investing millions of dollars in technology or curricula that would no doubt be viewed as outmoded and forgotten within a couple of years. If the program is successful, the benefits should be seen almost immediately, and continue to engender positive outcomes even when these current youngsters participating in Providence Talks are the age of the ones I teach now (10th grade.) Good work, Providence, R.I.

Happy new year, everyone. Wishing you all the best in 2014.

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