Look Who’s Talking

Initiatives in America look to encourage social mobility and academic achievement in children from poorer backgrounds, simply by encouraging parents to talk to their children more.

From the first thing in the morning to the last thing at night, infants are absorbing everything around them. Their sponge like brains are uber alert, as they begin to make sense of the external word. This is most evident in the words they absorb, with them being particularly susceptible to language, with infants as young as 10 months showing some language specialisation. We may not place enough importance on these early stages of language development, because recent studies suggest that the amount children are spoke to during this period has clear implications on their success in later life.

Recent research has discovered that the number of words a child hears in their early years will be a clear determination of their academic success and IQ in later life. There appears to be clear differences between groups of people in the amount of words children hear in these critical periods of language development. Researchers have gone as far as to say that differences in socioeconomic status (SES) are maintained as a result of what children are exposed to. Parents of high SES interact with their children more than those from lower SES backgrounds. 

Psychologists argue that just by going to pre-school, children can reach school ages almost 2-3 years ahead of their peers. Simply as a result of them being interacted with more in infancy, and therefore hearing more words and developing more. Once this difference is established it often stays and in some cases may even grow. This offers  some explanation as to why there is a such a definitive positive relationship between SES and academic achievement.

These word gaps can even be identified in differences in the brain. Kim Noble a neuroscientist at Colombia university in America found that children from high SES backgrounds have larger areas of the brain related to language. Broca’s area, associated with speech production, and Wernicke’s area, responsible for language understanding; are notably larger in children from high SES backgrounds. 

How do we create a level playing field independent of SES background influences? Many suggest that pre-school should be more readily available. However, researchers at the american association for the advancement of science, say these differences in brain anatomy begin well before preschool.

 

Anne Fernald – Stanford University

This achievement gap begins really early! Evidence exists that shows those as young as 18 months show a big difference in children from a low SES and high SES background. These gaps don’t disappear if anything they may get a little wider or pretty much stay constant. But they are there much earlier than we had thought

In America, where social mobility is a genuine issue, they have introduced programmes to help low SES children enter school on a level playing field. Dana Suskind, director of the thirty million words initiative argues that by preschool it might be too late, and to give children the opportunity to reach their full potential, they aim to get children where it begins, in the home between 0-3 years of age. They say that with more talk from a young age true changes can occur. 

The research is clear, impact of of children’s early language environment has a direct impact on the beginning of the achievement gap as we know it. To shorten this gap we need to get parents speaking to their children in their homes. So when they eventually begin school they will have all the necessary tools to achieve.

It is a real issue in America and one that is being taken seriously. By the ages of 8-9 81% of children from low income families in America do not have age appropriate cognitive abilities. This deficit can be traced back to their early years. The positive news is that these enormous differences are easily combated. Something as simple as directly talking to a child is incredibly effective. Particularly in the early years, because by the time a child reaches five their brains have done most of it’s growing. A boost in parent-talk may be the answer to shortening the gap between academic achievement in low income and high income children.

Musa Clarke