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Word Up

When my kids were babies, I used to talk to them all the time.

Anybody eavesdropping on my tedious existence would have thought I was a mad woman, babbling about every move in our mundane lives, reading stories to them as if I was vying for an Academy Award.

I'd like to claim that I peppered my children with conversation and theatrical book readings because I was driven by some evidence-based, child-rearing philosophy, but the truth is I mainly did it because it felt natural and it relieved the extreme boredom and isolation of being a stay-at-home mom.

Now there is a growing body of research that says the jabbering of moms to their babes might actually contribute to higher IQ scores and wider vocabularies. Interactive reading while reading storybooks to kids can boost their IQ by over six points, according to findings published recently in Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Despite my isolation and mostly non-responsive audience, I was one of the lucky ones. The economy hadn't bottomed out yet. I was able to stay at home with my kids and do occasional part-time work, freeing me up for those all those one-sided conversations and dramatic reading episodes.

But moms and kids who don't get to have that much time together aren't so fortunate. A child from a low-income family hears an average of eight million fewer words per year than a child from a more privileged family. That's 32 million fewer words by the time the child turns four.

This phenomenon is known as the 32-million word gap and research suggests it is one of the key factors in the yawning achievement divide between low-income students and their more fortunate peers.

Here's the really disturbing part: By the time a child enters kindergarten, this language gap may be irreversible. The number of words a child is exposed to before age 6 may be the biggest indicator of her success later in life.

Some cities and states, including Florida, are fighting the word deficit by making pre-kindergarten more available and free. In Providence, Rhode Island, they're proposing attaching electronic devices to children's clothes to record all the words spoken to them. Data from these Language Environmental Analysis Pros will pinpoint the city's "word deserts" so parents can be coached and connected to literacy-building efforts at public libraries and other community programs.

I have to think that providing more parent-friendly work schedules and compassionate maternity/paternity leaves would help, too.

In some cases, it may be just as simple as getting the word out that talking and reading to kids before they even speak can make a huge difference in their lives.

You may be bored and you may be crazy, but you also may be a good parent.