Thursday, April 11, 2013

The language deficit

If you're revising child language for ENGA1 (or ENGB3 on the AQA B spec), you might find this link a useful one to have a look at. Tina Rosenberg, writing in The New York Times, takes a detailed look at research into the amount and range of language that children hear around them, or have directed at them, and the gap between rich and poor kids that seems to exist.

Rosenberg refers to the work of Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley (which we referred to here a while ago) and recent programmes designed to close this gap. But what kind of gap are we talking about?

The disparity was staggering. Children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour. Working-class children heard 1,200 words per hour, and children from professional families heard 2,100 words. By age 3, a poor child would have heard 30 million fewer words in his home environment than a child from a professional family. And the disparity mattered: the greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school. TV talk not only didn’t help, it was detrimental.
The programmes to close this gap sound really impressive and are exactly the kind of thing that Sure Start was supposed to help in the UK before its funding was brutally slashed.

More recently, Dana Suskind, a pediatric cochlear implant surgeon at the University of Chicago who founded the school’s Thirty Million Words project, did a study with 17 nannies in Chicago. Each attended a workshop on the importance of talk, strategies for increasing it, and how to use the Lena recorder. Then they used it once a week for six weeks. Suskind found (pdf) that the nannies increased the number of words they used by 32 percent and the number of conversational turns by 25 percent.
We've talked in class a lot about the competing influences of nature and nurture in children's language acquisition, but here's a really interesting approach to improving the quality and range of what children hear, and subsequently it would seem, produce.

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