A recent article in the New York Times highlights a new study by a psychologist at Stanford that reveals a growing reading and language gap between children from low-income households and those from more affluent families. And this achievement gap actually begins much earlier than many people realize.
Stanford Psychology Professor Anne Fernald found that children as young as 18 months are affected by their home environment and the amount of verbal interaction they experience with their caregivers. According to the article, Fernald’s study determined that at 18 months, children from high-income families “could identify pictures of simple words they knew –“dog” or “ball” — much faster than children from low-income families.” The result is children from a lower socioeconomic status who are behind in vocabulary development and other pre-literacy skills.
Fernald says that the reason for this achievement gap is that for many reasons, more parents of low economic means are less likely to provide supportive talk to their children than wealthier parents.
This study confirms other research that shows 3 year olds from low-income families hear 30 million less words than those from “professional” parent households. All of these studies explain why so many children living in poverty are developmentally behind both in vocabulary development and reading comprehension.
All of this research continues to focus government attention on the importance of early education, and specifically preschool. Latinos remain in the spotlight, as the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual 2013 Kids Count report shows that 63 percent of Latino children are not enrolled in preschool, making them the least likely of any racial or ethnic group in the U.S. to attend this type of early education program. Studies have also shown that Latino students entering kindergarten are also less likely to recognize lowercase letters of the alphabet and letter sounds.
Despite these depressing statistics, Ann O’Leary, from the Too Small to Fail campaign (a Hillary Clinton Initiative), says that a child’s socioeconomic status does not have to predict life-long learning habits, and that simply empowering low-income parents with information about their role in their child’s development can make a big difference. “Low-income mothers may underestimate by as much as 50 percent the impact that they can have on their children’s cognitive development,” O’Leary says.
To help your infant and toddler develop their cognitive abilities to his or her full potential, consider these simple things you as a parent can do:
Talk to your child. Don’t worry about whether or not your child understands what you are saying. Research proves that children who are spoken to often as infants and toddlers, develop a much larger vocabulary than those who are not.
Make it interactive. Ask your child questions – What color is the apple? Why are you sad? How many do you see? – regardless of whether or not they can answer you back, but encourage them to respond with smiles and nods.
Read aloud. Reading out loud to your child has many benefits, but only 48 percent of children in the U.S. are read to each day. Take 15 minutes to read a book to your child. Don’t have any storybooks handy? Grab a magazine, newspaper, or any other type of print-rich material. Infants and toddlers even benefit from hearing grocery lists read aloud! And don’t stop reading just because they learn to read themselves!
- Use gestures. Take the time to wave, nod, or point to words or objects when you talk or read to your child. Visual clues like these help your child to identify words more quickly and interpret conversations.
Monica Olivera Hazelton, NBC Latino contributor and the founder and publisher of MommyMaestra.com, a site for Latino families that homeschool, as well as families with children in a traditional school setting who want to take a more active role in their children’s education. She is the 2011 winner of the “Best Latina Education Blogger” award by LATISM.