Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Narrowing the Achievement Gap through Linguistic Nutrition

Recent research out of Stanford University by Adriana Weisleder and Anne Fernald reinforces much of what we already know about the importance of talking to young children as a way to help them develop the oral skills and vocabulary necessary to excel in school. Wesleder and Fernald not only provide new insights into our understanding of early language development, but they bring a new term to the table that I just love – linguistic nutrition. Just as a toddler’s future health and well-being is dependent upon food-based nutrition, so too, is child’s future success in school dependent on linguistic nutrition.

Like many of you I am sure, I try to give money to organizations like Philabundance, in my home town, who do heroic work in providing food to families in need to help insure that we can narrow the health gap for children. What Weileder and Fernald’s term suggests is that if we are going to narrow the learning achievement gap we need to spend resources on linguistic nutrition as well.

In this study entitled, Talking to Children Matters: Early Language Experience Strengthens Processing and Builds Vocabulary, the authors say, “"Parents need to know the importance of providing linguistic nutrition and exercise to their young children. By talking with them more in an engaging and supportive way, parents can nurture early brain development and build a strong foundation for language learning."

Interestingly, it is not just exposure to more language that helps the developing toddler build vocabulary, it is also that hearing more contextualized talk helps children “became faster and more reliable in interpreting speech, and [it is this] superior skill in processing language that then increased their success in vocabulary learning.

The authors further found that toddlers do not develop this ability simply by listening to adults talking around them or watching a television show, the talk must be in the “context of meaningful interactions with those around them."

Weisleder and Fernald studied a relatively homogeneous group of low-SES, Latino families. A central finding of the research was that SES does not determine the quality of the child’s language experience. They found that “[d]espite the challenges associated with living in poverty, some of these moms were really engaged with their children, and their kids were more advanced in processing efficiency and vocabulary."

The researchers are following up their study by working on interventions with disadvantaged Latino families in order to help parents learn to engage effectively, linguistically with their children. The goal is to educate families about the central role family talk can play in fostering a child’s language and vocabulary development.

It strikes me that this research and the follow-up these authors are doing is central to narrowing the achievement gap. It suggests exactly the kind of wrap around services recommended by Diane Ravitch in Reign of Error. The standards, charter schools, vouchers and test and punish programs foisted on public education by the corporate education reform movement are doomed to failure when it comes to substantive change in the achievement gap. Focusing on linguistic nutrition, on the other hand, shows real promise. Who will fund interventions such as the one started by these Stanford researchers? Mr. Gates? Mr. Broad? Mr. Walton? Ms. Rhee? How about putting your money and your propaganda machines behind something that can make a real difference?

Weislader, A. and Fernald, A. (2013) Talking to Children MattersEarly Language Experience Strengthens Processing and Builds Vocabulary. Psychological Science.