Arizona Education: 30-million Word Gap (package and guests)

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By the age of three, children from the wealthiest families have been exposed to 30-million more words than children from the poorest families, the 30-million word gap. We’ll see how one mom is tackling the problem then hear more about the issue from Dr. Kristi Sandvik, superintendent of the Buckeye Elementary School District.

TED SIMONS: Tonight's edition of "Arizona Education" looks at the 30 million word gap between children from low and high income families. We'll talk more about the word gap and its impact in a moment, but first, producer Christina Estes and photographer Langston Fields introduce us to a mom who understands the importance of words.

TEACHER: Can you tell me what letter this word starts with?

CHRISTINA ESTES: When Alexis Slate showed up at this Buckeye preschool.

TEACHER: Turn on your listening ears.

CHRISTINA ESTES: She was already a pretty good listener. Thanks to her mom Claudia.

CLAUDIA SLATE: I noticed the more I talked to her and made facial expressions, the more she would react to them.

CHRISTINA ESTES: Claudia started reading books earlier.

CLAUDIA SLATE: Probably the first year she would watch, watch, help turn the pages to kind of following along, I could see her eyes following along where I was reading.

CHRISTINA ESTES: Claudia made a point of talking a lot.

CLAUDIA SLATE: I'd take a walk, saying okay, there goes the car and that's a tree. There goes the bird. Just incorporating it in everything that we do.

CHRISTINA ESTES: Does it feel funny?

CLAUDIA SLATE: At first it did. It was a little not responding to me. But I could see that she was enjoying it. When I didn't on those down days that I wasn't talking as much, I noticed that she could tell the difference.

CHRISTINA ESTES: Researchers behind the word gap study found that 85 to 98% of the words kid use by the age of three came from their parents' vocabularies.

STUDENTS: No way!

CHRISTINA ESTES: The first two and a half years of her daughter's life Claudia didn't work outside the home, and Alexa was surrounded by her mother's words. Now that she's almost four it's mom who's doing more of the listening.

CLAUDIA SLATE: She tells me her princess story every night. It starts the same but every day it changes a little, she adds more detail.

CHRISTINA ESTES: Somehow the number of words a child knows by the age of four is a strong indicator of how well they do later on in school.

ALEXA SLATE: Start with a little A and a big A.

CHRISTINA ESTES: While Alexa is on the right track, Claudia has no plans to stop talking. She's even more vocal now that Alexa has a younger brother.

CLAUDIA SLATE: Talk to your kids, have conversations. It's okay if they don't respond. They know what you're saying and they enjoy it.

TED SIMONS: Experts say talking, reading or singing will help build a child's vocabulary and understanding of how language works. Here with more on the 30 million word gap is Kristi Sandvik, superintendent of the Buckeye elementary school district and Ginger Sandweg, senior director of early learning of First Things First. Good to have you both here, thanks for joining us. This 30 million word gap, how did they - what kind of research was done to find out about this?

KRISTI SANDVIK: It's actually pretty interesting, a doctor out of the University of I believe Chicago, who originally was putting in cochlear implants for children. She did some follow up with the families and wanted to know how the children or the babies essentially were doing with the cochlear implants. And she realized that some of the students or children at that point, some of the babies were responding well and some weren't. And so a question in her mind was why is that so, why is that happening. Further research was conducted and what she found was that the 30 million word gap exists between families that are of higher socioeconomic status than less. It's an interesting phenomenon.

TED SIMONS: It sure is. Is it only when parent or adults speak to the children? Some of these lower income children, they come from big families and have brothers and sisters who never shut up. How does that work?

GINGER SANDWEG: I think it's important that the talking continues on. It doesn't necessarily need to come from the families themselves, the parents or the grandparents caring for families. But it comes have a variety of places. It could be older siblings, the schools, the early care and education programs or the child care settings that they are in. The importance of people talking with children and responding to children's language, wherever it comes from is important.

TED SIMONS: That responding to children's language would, I would think, take television, radio, video screens away, correct?

KRISTI SANDVIK: Could be. She and others have recommended taking a time-out from technology is a good thing. To tune in to your children, to talk more and build that awareness. Anywhere you're at, in the stores or in your car that you're really building vocabulary, especially with children that are just three years old and younger.

TED SIMONS: Preschool skills are preschool exposure, what you found out from 18 to 24 months even, does that really correlate to later learning?

GINGER SANDWEB: Absolutely. We have a lot of information from brain research about the connections that are made when a familiar adult is talking with you, is singing with you, is reacting to you. We know that that sets the foundation for later learning. We know that a strong vocabulary is definitely connected to school success, third grade reading, high school graduation.

TED SIMONS: You could basically - The child sitting in the crib, you could sit there and talk up a storm, read "War and Peace," it doesn't matter as long they are hearing something, there's communication going on.

GINGER SANDWEB: And that back and forth, not just bombarding them with language but talk with them and wait and listen for their response so there's an ongoing dialogue.

TED SIMONS: And if the response is completely unintelligible I believe, so much the better.

KRISTI SANDVIK: That research is so fascinating to me. She finds doesn't matter what you're saying as long as you're speaking and you're utilizing some kind of vocabulary. The difference being that kids that were -- families that were in poverty had the huge gap. What we're trying to do in partnership with First Things First in our School District is to build that awareness to help parents know that, like you said, just talking to your children, speaking to your children. What needs to be done? Are we talking universal preschool? Is that even early enough? Sounds like that's a little late in the game.

TED SIMONS: An interesting concept. By the time children get to kindergarten, if they are behind and not exposed to those vocabulary words and decoding and awareness, preschool may not be soon enough.

GINGER SANDWEB: And I don't think there's any one solution out there. What we know that is families need some options. Families might benefit from parenting education. They might benefit from their child having access to a high quality early childhood program. They might benefit from some intensive home visiting programs that help support their knowledge and awareness about vocabulary and the importance of it for later school success.

TED SIMONS: You agree?

KRISTI SANDVIK: Yes, absolutely. I think the nice thing about preschool programs, they are often sometimes full of resources for parents and explicit instruction. The nice thing about our partnership and the Buckeye School District for families and First Things First, that gives parents an opportunity to network, as well. A lot of times parents are a little unsure, they are sometimes single parents and they need an opportunity to talk to one another and find out, is that working, how did that happen, it's a success that you could share.

TED SIMONS: I would imagine maybe sending home with older brothers and sisters, conversation starters, maybe a suggestion for a picture book. Picture books are not bad, are they?

GINGER SANDWEB: It gives children an opportunity to make up stories and make up their own language.

TED SIMONS: The word gap I think was studied in the early 1990s. It doesn't sound like it's gotten much better over the past couple of decades. What's going on here?

GINGER SANDWEB: I think there's a lot going on, especially for low-income families. They have so many things that they are dealing with to survive. And those things get in the way of making sure that there's time for quality interactions, for talking with your children. But I don't think that is something that we can't do anything about. Raising some awareness with families, giving families tools, that it doesn't take a whole lot of time. When I'm doing those daily tasks, going to the grocery store, I can have those conversations with children.

TED SIMONS: Just to get that information out should narrow the gap? Because since the early 1990, it should be getting better, I would think.

KRISTI SANDVIK: I think it would help narrow the gap. But again, having an opportunity for parents to talk to one another to say, hey, is it okay that I pointed out the M, what have you, and I'm making these funny noises, I feel like I should be at home doing these things. We're trying to help people understand across a variety of environments it's okay to do that.

TED SIMONS: Gesturing, singing, talking, just make sure you've got a little conversation going even if they don't say a word back to you.

GINGER SANDWEB: Absolutely

TED SIMONS: Well good to have you both here. Good stuff, we appreciate it

GINGER SANDWEB: Thank you

TED SIMONS: On "Arizona Horizon" we'll see people with "animal planet" and cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy who joins us to talk about creating a cat-friendly home. That's at 5:30 and 10:00 on the next "Arizona Horizon." That is it for now, I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

VIDEO: Arizona Horizon is made possible by contributions from the friends of eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you

Dr. Kristi Sandvik, superintendent of the Buckeye Elementary School District

Ginger Sandweg, senior director of early learning of First Things First

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