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Conceptualizing a Public Health Prevention Intervention for Bridging the 30 Million Word Gap

Abstract

Early childhood experience is a social determinant of children’s health and well-being. The well-being of young children is founded on their relationships and interactions with parents and family members in the home, caregivers, and teachers in early education, and friends and families in the greater community. Unfortunately, the early language experience of infants and toddlers from low-income families is typically vastly different than children from middle- and higher-income families. Hart and Risley (Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Brookes, Baltimore, 1995) described a “30 Million Word Gap” experienced by age four for children from poor families compared to economically advantaged families as measured by the number of words delivered by adults in the home to their children. This discrepancy between groups is associated with a deficit in vocabulary growth over time (Hart and Risley in Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Brookes, Baltimore, 1995; in The social world of children learning to talk. Brookes, Baltimore, MD, 1999; in Am Educ (Spring), 1–9. http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic1317532.files/09-10/Hart-Risley-2003.pdf, 2003), and readiness when they enter preschool and kindergarten compared to their more advantaged classmates. The purpose of this paper is to conceptualize a population-level public health prevention approach to research addressing the harmful impacts of the Word Gap. The approach includes use of evidence-based practices to improve children’s language environments to foster their early language and literacy learning in early childhood. After a brief review of the Word Gap, we discuss four aspects: a conceptual framework, a community leadership team as driver of the local intervention, evidence-based language interventions for reducing the gap and promoting child language, and the measurements needed. Implications are discussed.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under cooperative agreement UA6MC27762, Bridging the Word Gap Research Network at the University of Kansas. This information or content and conclusions are those of the author and should not be construed as the official position or policy of, nor should any endorsements be inferred by HRSA, HHS, or the US Government. We acknowledge the contributions of the BWGRN membership, particularly Work Group 6: Measurement, Methods, and Technology. Special thanks for input on the manuscript go to Ann Kaiser, Tony Biglan, John Colombo, Steve Fawcett, Samantha Sepulveda, Stephen F. Warren, April Fleming, and Jenne Bryant. We also recognize the influence of the white paper, Bridging the early language gap: A plan for scaling up (Suskind et al. 2013, September) on this work.

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Correspondence to Charles R. Greenwood.

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Dr. Walker has an intellectual property interest in PC Talks, the Promoting Communications Intervention described in the paper. Dr. Gilkerson is an employee of the LENA Research Foundation with an interest in the LENA system described in the paper. Dr. Watson-Thompson is a member of the KU Work Group on Community Health and Development, developers of the Community Tool Box and Community Check Box both described in the paper. Dr. Carta is the PI, Drs. Greenwood and Walker are CoPIs of the Bridging the Word Gap Research Network. Drs. Gilkerson and Watson-Thompson are voluntary members of the Bridging the Word Gap Research Network. No other conflicts are noted.

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Greenwood, C.R., Carta, J.J., Walker, D. et al. Conceptualizing a Public Health Prevention Intervention for Bridging the 30 Million Word Gap. Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev 20, 3–24 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10567-017-0223-8

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Keywords

  • Word Gap
  • Vocabulary
  • Language environment
  • Multicomponent prevention intervention
  • Infants/toddlers