Closing the vocabulary gap one word at a time

Hyoun-Suk Moon / MCT

There is tangible evidence of a gap in how children learn before they even reach kindergarten. A recent Stanford University study showed that children who are behind their peers in overall language development at 18 months of age will know about half as many words as their counterparts when they reach the age of 4.

The number of words a child knows by 4 is a strong indicator of how well they will do later in school. A poor vocabulary at this age translates into poor reading comprehension later on, as well as difficulty understanding new words and communicating with others.

This is because 80 percent of children’s brain develops by their third birthday; the early years from birth through 5 are critical to their cognitive, social and emotional growth. Even small investments in time and attention during this period can mean the difference between a child who can reach the finish line and one who will never even see it.

But there is good news. Families that simply talk, read or sing to their babies and toddlers every day will expose them to millions of words by the time they reach school age. This requires no special training or education — just our promise to engage with our children from a very early age.

We see a special opportunity to have an impact with Hispanic families, who account for roughly one in four of America’s schoolchildren and are expected to dramatically increase in number in states such as Florida and Arizona. Many of the children affected by the “word gap” are considered dual-language learners. That is, they hear a language other than English spoken in their homes.

In focus groups across America, Hispanic parents have reported concerns about talking to their children in Spanish, for fear of causing delays or complications in early English education. The reality, though, is that talking — or reading or singing — to a child in any language — actually builds the child’s understanding of how language works.

Brain scientists and linguistic experts say learning in one’s native language provides a strong foundation for learning a second language. We also know that exposing a child to two languages during these early years can help them learn more efficiently as they grow.

So we need to encourage parents to speak to their children in the language they feel most comfortable using and to take advantage of every opportunity to impart new words. In time, their children will learn to sort out the different words they are hearing inside and outside the home, and they’ll reap the benefits of growing up bilingual.

As business leaders and parents, we both understand why it’s important for all children to have the best possible start in their education and their lives. Today’s young children will someday become the workforce, leaders and parents of tomorrow. But without the vocabulary and learning skills to properly articulate and develop their thoughts, our communities’ most vulnerable children will fall behind and never catch up.

That’s why we are engaged with Too Small to Fail, a joint initiative of Next Generation and the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation. Together we are working in communities across America to reach millions of families with messages about the value of spending quality time communicating with their children in their early, formative years.

And we are having an impact. Thanks to a month-long effort in April across Univision media, thousands of families have pledged to dedicate time every day talking, reading and singing to their children. That translates into millions of more words our children will hear and learn, better preparing them for their future. Building on this success, we plan to continue engaging and educating parents about this critical subject for years to come.

There is no question that parents — regardless of income, race, or education level — want what is best for their children. We believe that it’s important for parents and their communities to recognize the power they have to help their children learn—and collectively, to vastly improve literacy and educational achievement nationwide.

If we work together in a concerted effort to narrow the word gap by increasing the vocabulary of children before they enter school, we can help provide all of America’s children with opportunities to succeed.

Cindy Hensley McCain is chairman of Hensley & Company, wife of Sen. John McCain and a member of the Leadership Council of Too Small to Fail. Roberto Llamas is executive vice-president and chief human resources and community empowerment officer at Univision Communications.

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