Support conversational capacities among parents on low incomes for language development in children that can cut poverty’s impact.

Big improvements seem possible for crucial language development in children from families in underserved communities. These possibilities do not negate the need for economic policies to address child poverty. But children’s language prospects need not be so blighted by impoverished beginnings. They can do well despite stubborn child poverty or poor preparation for school.

It’s all about the power of talk. Conversation between parents and young children aids language development in children and can nurture young children’s learning and redress some of the imbalances with better-off peers. Talking can help put impoverished children on a path to school readiness and success.

These interactions can occur anywhere – around a book, in a shop, just hanging out. And they are increasingly taking place. New locations are being developed for them.  There are simple, inexpensive ways to encourage and enrich language development in children at home and out of doors.

A big question is whether policy will provide the support that such conversations need when children are out and about or at home. Will it also offer the encouragement needed for fathers to make the most of their own important chats with their children?

Poverty’s challenge to language development in children

The challenge was laid out in 1995 in an oft-cited but contested US study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley. The study found that in high-poverty households, children were, on average, exposed to 30 million fewer words in their early years, compared with their middle income peers. This ‘30 million word gap’ was said to underpin slower language development in children that diminished later access to curriculum and lower long-term achievement.

“Conversation breakthroughs are occurring in economically disadvantaged families … that have helped narrow gaps in maths and language development in children.”

This is a much disputed piece of work, not least because it involved a small sample. Further studies have disputed the evidence. Most recently, research in similar communities by Douglas E Sperry and colleagues failed to support the claims. Their findings suggested that if the definition of a child’s verbal environment excludes multiple caregivers and bystander talk, researchers will underestimate the number of words to which low-income children are exposed. They show that multiple sources can support children’s language development.

Nevertheless, it is clear that talk is a powerful pathway for skill development. And children don’t get much of this kind of language development support in the classroom. On average, vocabulary instruction typically accounts for just five minutes of the classroom day. Teachers do most of the talking in schools, much of it directive, often leaving little room for student dialogue.

So home is also vital. The language children experience at home provides a pivotal foundation for learning and language development, according to Annemarie Hindman and colleagues. In his seminal study The Meaning Makers, Gordon Wells found that input from parents harnesses the extended time they have for one-to-one interaction.

Catherine Tamis-LeMonda highlights the armoury of skills that parents have to help children with language development. She explains how parental inputs are special thanks to the reinforcement they provide by actions such as smiling, singing, speaking and gesturing in turn.

Changing interactions amid child poverty to support language development in children

Most intriguing are changes recorded in economically disadvantaged families. There’s been a dramatic shift in the United States in how parents with few resources care for and engage with their children. While child development policy in the US has largely focused on extending access to preschool, low-income parents have been busy transforming their practice, according to Jane Waldfogel. That’s been helping to narrow gaps between lower- and higher-income children in maths, reading and language development.

New locations are also emerging for conversation breakthroughs. These are highlighted by the US Learning Landscapes programmes that redesign public spaces for learning through play and conversation.  Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and colleagues show that these innovations prompt enhanced interactions that support language development in children, particularly in low-income families.

“While we await economic justice and better investment in educational institutions, we should make the most of parental talk to aid language development in children and limit the damage that poverty exacts.”

So what can policy makers do to build on these findings? First, they should tell the story of the difference that parents can make to language development in their children. Simon Calmar Andersen’s research in Denmark highlights the importance of instilling in parents a belief in their children’s capacities and their potential to make a difference. Andersen’s research shows how it’s possible to transform parental mind-sets that underestimate children, leading to big improvements in children’s reading.

Low-income fathers are one group of parents who can make a big difference to language development and learning in children, but they often lack confidence. Natasha Cabrera emphasises how dads’ play and conversation, in supporting social and cognitive development, offers families ways to break the links between childhood poverty and impoverished education and learning. But dads need to know, she says, that they have an influence that no one else may be able to duplicate.

Increasing confidence to talk amid child poverty

All staff and services that come into contact with parents should prioritise bolstering the confidence of underserved parents around the transformational possibilities of conversation with their children. Such encouragement for language development in children should begin with prenatal services.

We must also make the most of public spaces to energise and support children’s interactions with parents and other adults. Public space – free, available to all, and increasingly stimulating – should be recruited as a major ally in the battle against educational inequity.

New pathways are emerging for low-income families to improve children’s educational prospects. As we await economic justice and better investment in educational institutions, we should make the most of parental talk to limit the damage that poverty exacts on children’s language development and possibilities.

Header photo: Francesco. Creative Commons.