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Can Overheard Speech Build Vocabulary for Poor Children?

(Reuters Health) – New research is challenging a landmark 1995 study that found poor children hear 30 million fewer words addressed to them than higher income children before age three.

The supposed “word gap” has been linked to lifelong academic, social and income disparities. But Douglas E. Sperry at St. Mary of the Woods College in Indiana and colleagues found that children living in all types of communities hear far more speech than the original research implied, if the child’s total environment is taken into account, including their older siblings and other caregivers and relatives.

The researchers studied small children in five low-income communities, analyzing words spoken directly to the children as well as words children could overhear.

They found, for example, that children living in a poor region of Alabama heard 3,203 words per hour -only half of which were addressed to them by their primary caregivers.

In the working-class community of Jefferson, Indiana, the total amount of ambient speech heard by children was 210 percent higher than the number of words addressed to them by the primary caregiver.

And in the poor community of South Baltimore, the total number of words children overheard per hour was 54 percent higher than the number of words spoken to them by their primary caregivers alone.

“The original study results that impoverished families don’t speak a lot to their children doesn’t resonate,” Sperry told Reuters Health during a telephone interview.

But other researchers who spoke with Reuters Health argue that overheard speech is less helpful than words spoken directly to a child.

Meredith Rowe, an associate professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, Boston, told Reuters Health by phone that the study “undermines what we already know from science of how children best learn language.”

“We know that directed speech can help children learn, especially if a caregiver can engage kids in the things they care about. There’s no evidence that overheard speech is helpful for a young child’s home environment,” said Rowe who, with other coauthors, challenged Sperry’s study in a piece for the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization in Washington, D.C.

Rowe said she is afraid the study will undermine literacy programs like the Too Small to Fail and Providence Talks initiatives.

Sperry said, “The ultimate goal of anyone who studies language is to try and get rid of the achievement gap between low income folks and high income folks or children of color versus those of European middle class families. We’re not trying to get rid of any literacy programs. We’re trying to create programs that are more focused and recognize the linguistic strength of all children.”

For the new analysis, published in Child Development, researchers examined recorded language data from fieldwork investigations and 157.5 hours of home observations of 42 children, ages 18 to 48 months, interacting with various family members. Data were collected over five periods from the late 1970s through the late 1990s.

The Sperry study has more poor and working-class children and fewer middle- and upper- class children compared with the original word-gap study by Hart and Risley, which was also based on 42 children.

“This will collapse the group differences and make it harder to evaluate,” John D. E. Gabrielli, Grover Hermann professor of health sciences and technology and cognitive neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts told Reuters Health by telephone.

Earlier this year, Gabrielli found that interactive conversation between a child and adult is more critical to language development than the word gap, so he also didn’t agree with Sperry’s emphasis on the quantity of overheard speech.

“The quality of words is the driving force. Otherwise, plucking a kid in front of the TV would be awesome, but it’s not,” said Gabrielli.

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