Talk more to bridge language gap

Program targets 30 million-word discrepancy among low income kids.

There are a lot of reasons why kids from poorer households don’t do as well in school as youngsters from wealthier families.

Brenda Fitzgerald even has a number: 30 million.

By the age of 4, a child from a poor household has heard 30 million fewer words than one from a well-off family. That’s the verbal equivalent of 107 Sunday New York Times, or about 4,600 average President Obama speeches.

In this case, silence is not golden. That word gap can make the difference between dropping out of school or graduating, having a job vs. a career or even how long someone lives.

And it all goes back, said Fitzgerald, commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, to words. The more words your baby hears — the better his or her “language nutrition” — the better are his or her chances later in life.

A physician, Fitzgerald recently unveiled Talk To Me Baby, a program designed to narrow that word gap. State officials want to ensure that parents who visit any federal Women, Infant and Children aid program (WIC) clinic in the state understand how to make their children’s long-term prospects rosier.

“We want to get this message to the mothers of Georgia,” she said.

That message: Talk to your child. Constantly. Children exposed to a lot of talk more easily become readers.

By third grade, she said, “You learn to read. After that? You read to learn.”

Studies show that any child who is behind in his or her reading skills by the end of third grade isn’t likely to catch up with classmates, either. That can mean earning less money as an adult, or not living as long as others: Wealthier people tend to be healthier people, too.

“Language is like nutrition for your brain,” Fitzgerald said. “The more words you hear, the more your brain develops.”

Talking, said Fitzgerald, sets off reactions in an infant’s brain, which is hard-wired to learn language. A steady diet of words sets neurons racing through a child’s mind, enhancing its ability to learn words — and, in time, to read. Not talking to a child thwarts that growth, meaning reading won’t come so easily.

“And that,” said Fitzgerald, “has profound implications.”

According to state figures, about one-third of Georgia’s third-graders aren’t reading at third-grade level.

Talk To Me Baby is based on findings from a 1995 survey of 42 families from different economic backgrounds conducted by University of Kansas child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley. Each family had a child between 18 months and 2 years old in the home. After a four-year study, researchers came to the rueful conclusion that poorer kids are verbally impoverished from birth onward.

Public health has set aside $125,000 to train health-care professionals about the importance of words and to make language-nutrition videos that will be shown at WIC clinics across the state.

The program is timely, said Dr. Terri McFadden, a pediatrician at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Hughes Spalding. She’s been looking after children for more than 20 years, and understands the importance of talking to them.

“The gap (between children) is wide, and getting wider,” said McFadden, who noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics recently affirmed the importance of talking to children.

“Parents,” she added, “are the first and best teachers.”

The United Way of Greater Atlanta Inc. late last year also announced it would give $1.5 million to the program. The money will be distributed over three years, and will be used to teach nursing students, as well as practicing nurses, about the impact language has on infants. The grant also will focus on promoting language nutrition at selected metro hospitals in 13 counties.

The program is about to pick up momentum, said Dr. Jennifer Stapel-Wax, an associate professor at Emory University’s Department of Pediatrics. She’s also director of infant and toddler research at the Marcus Autism Center, one of several organizations participating in the program. Other participants include the Atlanta Speech School, Georgia Campaign for Grade Level Reading, Emory University, Georgia Tech and the state Department of Education.

“We want to make sure parents are aware,” Stapel-Wax said.

The program will eventually become statewide, said Ashley Darcy-Mahoney, a neonatal nurse practitioner who’s an associate professor at Emory’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing. Beginning this fall, the nursing school will incorporate Talk To Me Baby in its curriculum.

“We’re really trying to make it a public-health campaign,” she said.

Erica Robinson believes in the campaign’s message. Her daughter, Sandra, 17 months old, was born deaf. The child now has cochlear implants, allowing her to hear.

A kindergarten teacher, Erica Robinson understands the importance of words. “You can tell, from day 1, the kids in class that no one has talked to,” said Robinson.

Now that her daughter can hear, said Robinson, she’s making up for lost time. Sandra is responding, too. “She’s 100 percent catching up,” Robinson said.

Mom is helping, too. She talks to her daughter. Constantly.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.