If you’re a parent, you can’t miss the hot new thing in early education: words. Talk to your baby, and you close the education gap, goes the theory. How about if your baby wants to talk back?

Helping babies and toddlers learn words has become a rallying cry for early childhood advocates over the past decade. Well-trained preschool teachers can cite chapter and verse on why it is important to immerse children in environments where they hear new words and are encouraged to speak and engage in conversation. Early language experiences, myriad studies show, help form the foundation for children’s learning and their success in school.

This all makes me cautiously optimistic about a series of new campaigns aimed at raising word awareness among parents and community members. NBC’s Education Nation recently put the spotlight on the Thirty Million Words initiative, a project of the University of Chicago that works with parents to encourage more “talk” and interaction with their young children. That was preceded by a forum in Washington, D.C., that was originally supposed to be co-hosted by the White House, the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the University of Chicago. (Because of the government shutdown, the university ended up going to it alone. See a recap on Twitter at#bridgethewordgap.)

And then came the political headline-maker, potential presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who  published an op-ed on the website for Too Small to Fail, a national initiative supported by the Clinton Foundation. The op-ed, “Closing the ‘Word Gap,’” emphasizes the importance of parents and caregivers taking time to talk with young children.

“Coming to school without words is like coming to school without food or adequate health care,” Clinton wrote. “It 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.”

Clinton’s advocacy and that of many other groups promoting language development is rooted in acclaimed research from Betty Hart and Todd Risley, the developmental psych duo that penned the 1995 book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children. One of the takeaways from their study – the finding that children with parents on welfare hear 30 million fewer words by the age of 3 than do children from parents in professional careers – is regularly repeated among child development experts.

The key is to make sure the messages from all the great studies don’t get telephone-gamed into a quest for a one-way push to pump a set quantity of vocabulary words into our kids’ ears.

Over the next several years, we will see how these “bridge the word gap” campaigns unfold. One city to watch – noted at the Friday event and mentioned by Clinton  — is Providence, R.I. The city won the $5-million grand prize this year in the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge for Providence Talks, a project to launch in 2014 that combines the strengths of high-touch programs – such as voluntary home-visiting and parent-education initiatives – with the use of a digital recording device known as the LENA to “measure vocabulary exposure for children in low-income households and help parents close the word gap.”

To build on those great efforts, we’ve got to ensure that we have a conversation about conversations. The key is to make sure the messages from all the great studies don’t get telephone-gamed into a quest for a one-way push to pump a set quantity of vocabulary words into our kids’ ears.  Instead, this movement should also help parents recognize the power of conversation and interactions with their kids.  Research led by Patricia Kuhl at the University of Washington has shown that even at very young ages – before age 1 – children are more likely to build language skills when they are engaged in a social interaction versus a one-way stream of words. (One of Kuhl’s studies, for example, looked at the difference between babies watching a video of a person talking and a face-to-face interaction. More learning occurred with the face-to-face scenario.)  .

When my children were younger, I remember being so floored when I learned about the significance of simple talk and conversation in my children’s growth. I hadn’t realized how powerful a few moments of elaboration could be, whether lamenting the crumbs in the car seat or responding to questions about belly buttons. I am all for helping parents see the power of conversation. In fact, in some recent work for the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, we here at the Early Education Initiative, in conjunction with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, have been exploring how digital media in addition to books could have cascading effects if used thoughtfully to help parents prompt children’s language growth. (We put forth some possibilities in our 2012 paper, Pioneering Literacy in the Digital Wild West.)

It’s worth cheering when a world leader of such renown is turning her attention to the importance of building children’s language skills. Let’s help spread the word about what parents can do by talking aloud about the world around them — and then listening and responding to their children’s inquisitiveness about what they see.

About the Author

Lisa Guernsey
Lisa Guernsey is Director of the New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative. Ms. Guernsey focuses on elevating dialogue about early childhood education, in part by editing the Early Ed Watch blog, and spotlighting new approaches for helping disadvantaged children succeed.