White House Event Focuses on Closing Vocabulary Gap Between Rich and Poor

By Lillian Mongeau — October 17, 2014 2 min read
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Researchers, pediatricians, advocates and government officials gathered at the White House Thursday to talk about the best ways to get parents to talk more to their children.

While talking, singing, and reading to infants and toddlers may seem like the most natural thing in the world to many parents, it is not something that every parent knows how to do. Researchers have found a big enough gap between the number of words children from families on welfare know and the number of words children from families with professional jobs know, that they have labeled it the “word gap” and are calling it the precursor to the achievement gap.

The urgency of closing that gap, President Barack Obama reportedly told attendees by pre-recorded video, means everyone involved in providing services for young children has to work together to come up with the best ways to engage parents.

Policy proposals, model programs, and the latest child-development research were the subject of several panels and addresses, according to event organizers. There were also announcements about new initiatives, from a small program to distribute better materials aimed at helping parents learn the best ways to sing, read, and talk to their children to the announcement of a $2 million study of dual-language learners managed by the National Academy of Sciences.

A new national research network led by the University of Kansas, an incentive prize for technological innovations from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and a plan to encourage doctors to work more closely with local libraries were also announced.

Details for most of these new initiatives are scarce at the moment. I’ll continue to report on some of the larger efforts as they begin to roll out.

Thursday’s conference was convened by Too Small to Fail, a joint initiative between Next Generation, an organization that advocates for better early education and environmental policies, and the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation. Too Small to Fail hosted the conference in conjunction with a long list of partners: the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Urban Institute, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Hillary Clinton made an appearance by video at the conference as well.

So apparently, early education continues to be the topic du jour in Washington, D.C..

(Chart: Cumulative vocabulary for different groups of children based on socioeconomic status. Source: Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley. Brookes Publishing, 1995 (4th printing, January 2003) )

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.