Filling the word gap

“When we walk, we always talk,” say Lamar and Marisol Bailey. For the Johns Island couple, the simple act of walking together in their neighborhood with sons Francis (from left), 3, Christopher, 11, and James, 5, becomes a time of learning together.

When Marisol Bailey moved to the United States from Honduras in 1999, she had to take a crash course in English just to get by. Since becoming a mother of three boys, she said she has stressed the importance of language learning as a key to opportunity.

In a way, the Charleston County School District’s Head Start early childhood program was preaching to the choir when school leaders started asking parents like Bailey to sign a pledge card promising to speak with their kids on a regular basis.

“Drop the line, embrace their minds,” the pledge card reads, followed by a list of suggestions: Stay off your cellphone in the car, sing to your child, play “I Spy.” Hoping to bridge a long-documented vocabulary gap among children of low-income families, district leaders are asking parents to commit to engaging their children in conversations in the car, around the dinner table or any other time they regularly spend together.

Bailey took the pledge as a worthwhile reminder to engage her youngest sons, James and Francis, during the morning car ride to Mount Zion Head Start on Johns Island. Now, after morning prayers, she keeps the radio turned off and carries on a conversation with them. In the afternoons, she asks what happened at school and keeps the talk going until they’ve arrived at home.

Bailey has been speaking to her sons since they were in the womb, and she doesn’t plan to slow down.

“I am a talker,” Bailey said. “I talk to my children. If you ever get to see my children, you’ll see that they’re not lacking in vocabulary.”

The parent pledge project is one answer to a problem that has vexed educators for decades. By age 3, children from working-class families hear an average of 30 million fewer words than their counterparts with wealthier parents, according to a landmark 1995 study by American education researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley.

Hart and Risley spent thousands of hours observing 42 families from a range of economic backgrounds. Among other findings, the study showed that children of parents on welfare heard far fewer encouraging statements and far more discouragements than their privileged peers. They suggested that early language deficits could set up children from poor families for literacy struggles and other academic problems.

“By the time the children were 3 years old, trends in amount of talk, vocabulary growth and style of interaction were well-established and clearly suggested widening gaps to come,” Hart and Risley wrote.

Some researchers have questioned the methodology and accuracy of the study, while others have faulted it for denigrating African-American Vernacular English and the communication patterns of low-income families.

One 2009 study published by the National Council of Teachers of English found that “uncritical acceptance” of Hart and Risley’s findings was leading school leaders to “embrace a deficit stance that pathologizes the language and culture of poor students and their families.”

Still, Hart and Risley’s study has informed policymaking nationwide. The Obama administration cited the 30-million-word gap in 2014 as it announced new grant funding for a Bridging the Word Gap Research Network and set aside $300,000 in prize money for developing tech-based inventions that “drive parents and caregivers to engage in more back-and-forth interactions with their young children.”

Ruth Taylor, the Charleston County School District’s executive director of Early Childhood Learning, was well-aware of the word gap study when she came up with the idea of parent pledge cards. Through her job, she had seen the real-world causes and effects of vocabulary deficits.

“What happens is when you’re impoverished and you’ve worked all day or you’ve got some issues going on, you’re just too tired,” Taylor said. “And so it’s, ‘Sit down and shut up’ or ‘Be quiet,’ where in another instance, in a more savvy family, it is, ‘Honey, I don’t want you standing on that chair because you can fall and hurt yourself.’ ”

Parents have been giving good feedback about the program so far, according to Taylor, and some Head Start programs, including the one at James Island Elementary, have already reached 100 percent parent participation.

“Every parent wants to do the best for their children, given the chance,” Taylor said.

For James Island parent Chrissy Helfenstein, signing the pledge meant changing her morning routine. Helfenstein and her husband used to hand an iPad to their 5-year-old son, Taylor, so he could play games on the way to Head Start. Now they play word games.

Sometimes they all take turns telling stories. Other times Taylor asks to play “Say Something and I Repeat It,” where one person describes a word and another tries to guess it.

Helfenstein said her son has learned new words already, and he’ll even hand the iPad back to her if she instinctively tries to pass it to him in the car.

“Those are learning opportunities for my child, precious moments with my child, and my son is growing because of that,” Helfenstein said.

The word games have also helped Taylor with his confidence, according to Helfenstein. In an Easter play at their church, she swelled with pride as Taylor recited a poem with flawless rhythm and a cheerful delivery.

“I’m going to brag about my son for a moment,” Helfenstein said. “He knew all the words. He didn’t hesitate. He acted like a little 10-year-old up there.”

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.