Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Feast or Famine: How Children's Minds Thrive or Starve on Words

Risley, Todd & Betty Hart, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, Brookes Publishing: 1995.

"Be the person you want your children to be." --Betsy Brown Braun

CREDIBILITY: It shouldn't be true, it couldn't be true, that little children on welfare hear one-third the number of words that are heard by the little children of professional parents, right? I mean, that's just nuts. People are people, and people talk, period. Sure, if it's true, I'll grant you that such a difference would probably impact the children greatly, but come on.

If you're not familiar, Hart-Risley asserts that the children of professional parents hear about 30 million words in the first three years of life, the children of working-class parents hear about 20 million words, and the children of parents on welfare hear a mere 10 million words. Some parents just talked a lot more to their kids and that set the kids on a vocabulary growth trajectory that appeared to be fairly fixed and unchangeable (as early as preschool!) and that influenced their IQ test scores and scholastic achievement for years to come.

My natural skepticism about the Hart-Risley study of 42 Kansas families--wherein the children were recorded in their home environments once a month from age one to age three, and all utterances in the home were documented, tagged and organized--led me to go to the original text. Hart-Risley is cited everywhere in the literature about reading, most notably in my beloved Read-Aloud Handbook, and I wanted to see for myself if this study was credible.

And, well, Hart-Risley is the real deal. The book is rife with passages that seem quite science-y ("auxiliary-fronted yes/no questions") and statistics-y ("all five derived variables when entered into a multiple regression analysis...") that looked awfully convincing to my layperson's eye, but for me personally the smoking gun was the transcripts, just because that's what I know and that's how I think.

Not only did the book lay to rest my suspicions that Hart and Risley were somehow "out to get" the welfare families (on the contrary, Hart and Risley appear to be devoted pinko commies driven a deep-seated desire to improve the early childhood education available to poor kids), it convinced me that this is a real phenomenon, despite the fact that (as critics have argued) N = 6 for the number of families included in the welfare group is a fairly low absolute number. (FWIW, the working class group bears out the professional/welfare split; talky families in this group had talkier kids with richer vocabularies, more taciturn families had kids with smaller vocabularies. Vocabulary size of individual children in the working class group was dependent on family verbosity, not income or socio-economic status.)

I highly recommend this book if you have any doubts, but after chapters upon chapters of statistical analysis, the authors conclude on page 167, "These variables are not simply marker variables denoting social class or subculture but are powerful characteristics of everyday parenting that cause important outcomes in children." So few things in early childhood education really appear to have any broadly positive impact at all, so this conclusion is remarkable.

VERBAL NUTRITION: One of the particularly distressing points of Hart-Risley is that not only do poor kids hear fewer words, period, than their more advantaged peers, they hear more "prohibitions." This means that a larger percentage of the words they do hear are "No," "Stop that," "Cut it out," "Put that down." At first glance this is just kind of crummy and mean, but upon further reflection, it's obvious that this higher percentage of verbal junk food is one of the primary culprits in the language-quantity-and-quality problem faced by these children. Every time a mom says "Don't touch the ball" and goes back to her soap opera, instead of saying "Yes, that's a ball. It's a round ball. Do you want to roll the ball across the floor?" she's missing an opportunity to initiate a conversation fork. The child not only loses the words about the ball, he or she loses the words about the ball bouncing down the steps, and what's beyond the steps, and why are there so many roly-poly bugs in the garden? The first kid gets four words, because "No" is a conversation killer, and the second kids gets an exponential number of words, because "Yes" sets off a chain reaction of ideas. Yes is the beginning of an infinity of conversation forks, which begin to look like a net after while, and a net looks a lot like the billions of neural connections being established in the growing brain of a toddler. It became clear to me after reading Hart-Risley that the talkative parents of both the upper-class and working-class groups in the study were essentially transferring their brain networks to their children. They simply had more connections within their own brains (and thus more words), so they were able to offer more brain connections and ideas and words and conversation forks to their children.

Some points from the book that fostered the above conclusion:

  • "Explaining alternatives takes many more words than straightforward directives." (pp 58-59)
  • "Remarkable about the upper-SES families was how busy they were...remarkable about the welfare families was their isolation." (p 69) [See, another representation of connections!]
  • "Children's experiences with frequent but brief and encouraging interactions that involve incidental teaching relative to a child-chosen topic may be contrasted to experience with infrequent but discouraging interactions that involve parent initiations to stop or correct what a child is doing. Infrequent interactions combine with social prohibitions to limit a child's opportunities to learn words and explore the actions and objects they describe." (p 113)
  • "We could see in the professional families the American dream: parents adding to and handing on to their children the advantages their families had given to them. We saw the daily efforts of these parents to transmit an educationally advantaged culture to their children through the display of enriched language; through the amount of talking they did and how informative they were; and through the frequency of gentle guidance, affirmative interactions and responsiveness to their children's talk. They represented the success stories we saw motivating the efforts of many of the working class families." (p 179)
  • "The first three years [of life] are a time when children are uniquely susceptible to the culture of adults, before interaction with peers and the social standards of schools become important influences on what children learn..Nearly everything the children saw and heard was conditional on the parents; everything they knew about the structure of the interpersonal world was referenced to their own experience in the family...The accomplishments of the higher-SES children are hardly surprising when we consider their cumulative experience: three years of enriched language and activities, three years of being told they were 'right' and 'good,' and three years of frequently being chosen as more interesting to listen to and talk to than anyone else." (pp 180-183)
ACTION ITEMS: OK, so how do you provide "quality interaction" with your kid!? According to Hart-Risley, what the parents of the highly verbal children did to make them that way is incredibly simple. In fact, it's so simple you're already doing it: "'They just talked,' 'They listened,' 'They tried to be nice,' "They gave children choices,' and 'They told children about things.' " Done, done, done, done and done, right? How could any parent not do that? 

The authors make it clear that the welfare parents are not villains--they are as loving and devoted as any parent anywhere, they simply just don't have...intellectual momentum. They accelerate their children to their speed, but they don't know how to propel their children further and faster than they are already going. They do the same basic things as every other mom and dad, but then they stop. There is just no emotional engagement, no verbal volleyball, no snapping together of mental Lego bricks.

The fascinating section called "An Example of a Limited Amount of Experience" (pp 183-187) gives the best insight into the child's experience of a verbally impoverished environment.

Among other things, the authors actually preface the conversation transcription from this section with "[We] have omitted the 50 child initiations to which the mother did not respond" (yikes!) and armchair psychologists will quickly spot a depressive miasma hanging over the entire scene.

The authors introduce the scene thusly (and so we begin to understand what goes wrong, and why): "Much in the example is typical of what we observed in all the families: The child is busily engaged in exploration; there are things to play with (a ball, a toy stethoscope, a purse, coins); and the parent provides routine care, dressing, feeding and changing the child. The contrast is in the amount of the child's experience: the number of opportunities the mother has to talk with the child that go unused. Nearly all the other mothers we observed would, for example, have tried to redirect the child's attention from the observer to feeding a doll; they would have asked about the stethoscope, played ball with the child, or asked whether she could count the coins."

I'll leave the five pages of gory details for you to read for yourself (this book is available at most large public and academic libraries), but here is an exchange that I consider to be a fairly representative thumbnail of the entire scene: "The mother returns; Inge sits on the couch beside her to watch TV and says something incomprehensible. Mother responds, 'Quit copying off of me. You a copycat.' Inge says something incomprehensible, and her mother does not respond.' "

WHAT. THE. #*$@%.


Let me end with some advice from Ryan Seacrest (yes, seriously) that I think is relevant to the discussion at hand:

"There's a mantra I've lived by throughout my entire career that I think is one of the keys to my success: Say 'yes,' accept the job, agree to that meeting, catch up over a cup of coffee and lend a helping hand. You never know what the future will bring, so always make the best use of the present. I often get teased for having so many jobs and such a busy schedule, but, truthfully, seizing each of these opportunities has led to many others. And remember, you can always say 'no' later...or so I've heard."

If you want your kids to reap the benefits of an enriched verbal environment, just say "Yes" to your kids. That doesn't mean let them dive headfirst into an empty pool if they ask to do that, it just means follow their conversational leads, make yourself open to them, making their needs and desires something that comes first in your life, rather than a distant runnerup after a TV show or anything else that might be diverting your attention.

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