Word Count Program Helps Expand Early Childhood Language Exposure

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The Providence Talks program expanded to five cities, where educators are working with parents to increase the number of words per day that their children hear.

When Ruth Ann Moss worked as a teacher, there were some days she was certain she’d taken more than 10,000 steps. But after consulting a pedometer, she had concrete evidence of the times she’d fallen short of her goal.

The nudge that a step counter provides for fitness and activity goals works equally well when it comes to helping parents count the number of words their children hear each day, said Moss, now the executive director of a child literacy program in Birmingham, Alabama.

The free program, Birmingham Talks, is based on a concept piloted in Providence, Rhode Island and is aimed at closing the “word gap” that persists between children from low-income households and those from more affluent backgrounds. Bloomberg Philanthropies provided $12 million to expand the program to five cities last year—also including Detroit, Hartford, Connecticut, Virginia Beach, and Louisville, Kentucky.

Previous research has shown that children from low-income households hear 30 million fewer words by the time they reach kindergarten than their more affluent peers. While some researchers are skeptical of the size of the word exposure gap, they agree that it is still important to ensure young children have a good grasp of language before they enter the classroom.

The program in Birmingham utilizes a “talk pedometer” that counts the daily number of words that adults speak in a child’s presence, giving parents precise data about their child’s exposure to vocabulary. The devices are placed in a vest worn by the child and capture audio throughout the day. Algorithms in cloud-based software are used to analyze the day’s audio recording to differentiate between the child’s crying, background noise from a television, and the words spoken by adults and the child wearing the device. 

While the city and area organizations have used literacy and vocabulary building programs in the past, the Birmingham Talks program is unique in that it focuses on children under the age of three and provides data to help parents measure progress, Moss said.

“There was a program that encouraged parents to read or talk to their children but there are very few programs that quantify that those things happen,” she said. “This provides parents with actual data to make sure they are meeting their goals.”

The program launched in Birmingham in September, and nearly a year in it has close to 250 families actively enrolled, Moss said. Over the three years that Bloomberg is funding the program, the city hopes to enroll more than 2,500 families.

A Brown University evaluation of Providence Talks, the original program, found that 56% of children who participated were exposed to more adult words. The largest gains were seen in children who had the lowest exposure to begin with. Their daily word exposure jumped from an average of 8,000 words a day to more than 12,100 words per day over an eight-month period. Researchers say that children need to hear about 15,000 words per day for strong language development.

In Birmingham, the program was designed to include both a one-on-one program with families that features home visits, as well as exposure to curriculum and books that can help parents engage more with their children. But it also provides professional development training for early childhood educators to provide them with instruction techniques and topics that can increase children’s language exposure.

Though the coronavirus pandemic led to the closure of schools and many businesses across the country this year, the outbreak hasn’t sidelined the program in Alabama, Moss said.

Virtual coaching has taken the place of in-person training and Moss said if schools and childcare facilities reopen in the fall they hope to be able to safely expand the program to other families.

With children out of school and childcare for the last several months, the pandemic has underscored the need for quality educational opportunities for young children, Moss said.

“Covid has exposed preexisting pressure points in inequity in our society,” she said. “As we emerge out of this pandemic, we are going to continue to see that this has an impact on children.”

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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