Toddlers, television and the troubling 'word gap'

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Plenty of parents leave a television on in the background when they're with their toddlers. And when the TV is on you can almost always hear someone talking. So why is it that TV seems to contribute to creating a "word gap" among young children?

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The answer lies in a new study published online in June in the Journal of Children and Media. The researchers found that parents speak fewer words to their 12- to 36-month-old children when television is on in the background than when it is off. In this clever experiment by Tiffany Pempek (Hollins University), Heather Kirkorian (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Daniel Anderson (University of Massachusetts-Amherst), parents were brought into a lab for an hour and told that the experimenters were interested in their children's play with and without TV. For half of the session, a video of an adult-oriented TV show was played. For the other half of the session, the TV was off. (The order in which that happened varied.)

The 49 parents, mostly mothers, were asked to act as they would at home in a similar situation, and their children were free to play with a range of age-appropriate toys. The researchers recorded the individual sessions and analyzed the speech between the parent and the child. What they found was that parents uttered 11 fewer words per minute when the TV was on in the background than when it was off (24 words per minute vs. 35). Moreover, the parents also spoke two fewer new or different types of words per minute when the TV was on (six vs. eight).

On the face of it, these speech differences may seem of little consequence. But research shows that over the long term, small differences in parent-child interaction can add up to big disparities in developmental opportunities.

A now classic 1995 study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley tracked the ways in which daily exchanges between a parent and child shape language and vocabulary development. Monthly hour-long observations of 42 families from different socioeconomic backgrounds were conducted for two-and-a-half years — from the time the child was seven months until age 3. Their study showed that children living in poorer homes heard an average of 616 words per hour, while those living in more affluent homes heard more than 2,153 words per hour. In the first four years of life, the researchers calculated, economically disadvantaged children will hear 30 million fewer words than their peers. Importantly, this "word gap" ultimately leads to an "achievement gap" as less parent-child interaction in the first three years of life was associated with lower vocabulary, literacy and test scores at age 9.

The importance of talking early and often with children is something that is not fully understood by parents, and can be particularly challenging when so many electronic devices are competing for parents' attention. Early childhood education initiatives like universal preschool are necessary and important, but may not reach children early enough to address the word and achievement gap. Investing in parenting education — specifically, helping parents see the value of their words and teaching them what kinds of language are most beneficial — may help.

The good news: these investments are beginning to happen.

With $5 million in funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies' Mayors Challenge, the city of Providence, R.I., is setting up its own "language lab" to determine what works for community-level efforts. Families that are part of the "Providence Talks" initiative receive a specialized "word pedometer" that counts the number of words and conversational interactions the participating child engages in over an entire day. These data are compiled into feedback reports, and parents receive one year of in-home visitation services where trained educators share the results and coach them on vocabulary-building exercises.

The word gap has also gained the attention of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In 2013, she wrote that the language disparity "makes it harder for kids to develop their creativity and imagination, to learn, excel, and live up to their full potential. It should spur us to action just like child hunger and child poverty." In partnership with the San Francisco nonprofit Next Generation, the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation has launched a campaign called "Too Small to Fail" that aims to address one of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of parents talking and interacting with their children: a lack of awareness of their important role in language development.

While such efforts hold great promise, it is clear that simply encouraging parents to speak more with their children will not close the achievement gap. A Chicago-based program called "30 Million Words," led by Dana Suskind of the University of Chicago, uses the "3Ts" as a conversational rubric. With the 3Ts, parents are taught to tune in, talk more and take turns. This means fewer behavioral correctives ("Stop that!") and more conversational openings ("Tell me about ..."). But the sort of tennis-style "serve and return" interactions that Suskind and others advocate can be difficult in an environment in where parents' attention is split between the television and the child.

Parenting can be difficult and the distraction from ubiquitous screens can be tempting. Parents need to know that constant "background noise" is not innocuous. We need to do more to get the message out to parents that every conversation they have with their children can make a difference in their healthy development. Maybe we should add a fourth "T" to Chicago's 3T model: TV off.

Jordan is associate director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and is president-elect of the International Communication Association. She is co-editor of the Journal of Children and Media.

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