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This study of ordinary families and how they talk to their very young children is no ordinary study at all. Betty Hart and Todd Risley wanted to know why, despite best efforts in preschool programs to equalize opportunity, children from low-income homes remain well behind their more economically advantaged peers years later in school. Their painstaking study began by recording each month - for 2-1/2 years - one full hour of every word spoken at home between parent and child in 42 families, categorized as professional, working class, or welfare families. Years of coding and analyzing every utterance in 1,318 transcripts followed. Rare is a database of this quality. "Remarkable," says Assistant Secretary of Education Grover (Russ) Whitehurst, of the findings: By age 3, the recorded spoken vocabularies of the children from the professional families were larger than those of the parents in the welfare families. Between professional and welfare parents, there was a difference of almost 300 words spoken per hour. Extrapolating this verbal interaction to a year, a child in a professional family would hear 11 million words while a child in a welfare family would hear just 3 million. The implications for society are staggering: Hart and Risley's follow-up studies at age 9 show that the large differences in the amount of children's language experience were tightly linked to large differences in child outcomes. And yet the implications are encouraging, too. As the authors conclude their preface to the 2002 printing of Meaningful Differences, "the most important aspect to evaluate in child care settings for very young children is the amount of talk actually going on, moment by moment, between children and their caregivers." By giving children positive interactions and experiences with adults who take the time to teach vocabulary, oral language concepts, and emergent literacy concepts, children should have a better chance to succeed at school
This major new book describes the parent-child interactions of the language acquisition years, revealing differences in the experiences of one- and two-year-olds from families across a spectrum of socioeconomic status. The authors show how the amount of time parents spend talking to their children in the early years of life directly influences children's future accomplishments.
Intergenerational Transmission of Competence
America in the 1960s found a cause worth committing to: the War on Poverty. The aim was to interrupt the cycle of poverty—the economic disadvantages that resulted from employment disadvantages that resulted from growing up in poverty. An attack was mounted on two fronts: breaking down barriers to the advantages mainstream society enjoyed, and providing a boost up through job training programs and early educational institutions. Job training programs and early education programs provided a boost up into the job market and the school system.
Because poverty was differentially prevalent among minorities, racial discrimination had to be targeted. But race, rather than cycle of poverty, was a central issue only in designing strategies to preserve cultural identity within mainstream society. Early education programs such as Head Start were funded to serve African American children in inner-city ghettos, Native American children isolated on reservations, and white children in rural Appalachia. All across the country, experts in early childhood education designed intervention programs to give children isolated in poverty the social and cognitive experiences that underlay the academic success of advantaged children. It was thought the War on Poverty could change children's lives within a generation.
Events continue to remind us that the War on Poverty did not succeed. After barriers were removed and a boost up was provided, the people who had the knowledge and skills that could influence the and motivate the next generation of children moved away and left those less competent isolated in communities riddled with drugs, crime, unemployment, and despair. Like most wars, the War on Poverty was more successful in destroying the past than in creating the future, the competencies for participating in an increasingly technological society.
Competence as a social problem is still with us. American society still sees many of its children enter school ill-prepared to benefit from education. Too many children drop out of school and follow their parents into unemployment or onto welfare, where they raise their children in a culture of poverty. The boost up from early intervention during the War on Poverty did not solve the problem of giving children the competencies they need to succeed in school. We recognize now that by the time children are 4 years old, intervention programs come too late and can provide too little experience to make up for the past.
Early Intervention Programs
The intervention programs of the War on Poverty, the first efforts, were modeled on the booster shot. It was assumed that a concentrated dose of mainstream culture would be enough to raise intellectual performance and lead to success in mainstream schools. Children disadvantaged from living in isolated areas were brought into preschool programs similar to those advantage children attended. The programs offered the enriched materials and activities available in such preschools, but replaced the traditional emphasis on social development with an emphasis on compensatory education, especially language and cognitive development.
Innovative curricula were designed and field tested. The content and objectives of the curricula were selected to teach in the preschool the competencies advantaged children apparently acquired at home. All of these curricula programmed successive educational experiences using materials especially designed to help children master basic academic skills in the style originated by Montessori for teaching poor children in Italy. DARCEE of Gray and Kalus, Karnes's GOAL, DISTAR of Bereiter and Engleman, and others are examples of the language and