At a science museum today with my two year old nephew (and various and sundry other relatives), I held his hand and showed him the antelope exhibit.
“See, that’s an antelope. Can you say that?”
“Annalope!” We walked to the next exhibit.
“Oh, this is a different kind of antelope.”
“Anonner one! And anonner one!” He pointed. Then he asked, “What’s he eating?”
“He’s eating the grass.”
“Annalope eating da grass.”
I got bored of all the antelope displays, and looked ahead. “Ooh, would you like to see a lion?”
“Wion!” So we moved on to the lion display. “Wion! Anonner one!”
“Yes, there are more lions. Shall we count them? One, two, three, four. There are four lions.”
“Four wions.” He paused, and looked at the lions with interest. “Toes.”
“Yes,” I said, “lions do have toes. In their paws.”
“Toes in dere paws.”
And so on. Later, walking back to the car with my brother-in-law, I told him how wonderful it was to talk to his son and teach him things, and how it made my kind of angry at the same time, to think of all the other two year olds who are not being talked to.
“No one is talking to them, or listening to them. Their parents think of toddlers as sort of overgrown babies who can’t really learn or do anything. They yell at them, tell them No! or Stop that! or Be Quiet!, they feed them, dress them, and they love them, but they don’t talk to them. And so they don’t really learn how to talk all that well…..And then they end up in my class.”
I told my brother-in-law about the most important study/book about education and poverty, Meaningful Differences, by Hart and Risley. Children from families in poverty are talked to so much less than children in families with professional parents that they arrive in kindergarten with a word deficit in the thousands, having heard millions of fewer words in their little life times.
“So, some kids are already screwed when they’re three?” my brother-in-law asked.
And unfortunately, some of them are. Those of us who are their teachers need to do as much as we can to provide them with rich experiences and lots of vocabulary to try to address the word gap.
And it sure would be nice if teachers and policy-makers and people who care about the achievement gap could figure out a way to encourage more parents to talk to their toddlers.