Why do we call it the Thirty Million Words® Initiative?
A world-famous study by researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley (1995) found that some children heard thirty million fewer words by their 4th birthdays than others. The children who heard more words were better prepared when they entered school. These same kids, when followed into third grade, had bigger vocabularies, were stronger readers, and got higher test scores. The bottom line: the kids who started out ahead, stayed ahead; the kids who started out behind, stayed behind. This disparity in learning is referred to as the achievement gap.
We believe those thirty million words are key to closing the achievement gap and giving children the best start in life. That’s why we created the Thirty Million Words® Initiative. We want to get the words out!
What is TMW?
The Thirty Million Words® Initiative is an innovative parent-directed program designed to harness the power of parent language to build a child’s brain and impact his or her future.
The TMW curriculum combines education and technology in a multimedia platform. The education component transforms hard science into accessible and easy-to-understand concepts. Animation illustrates these concepts and video of parent-child interaction brings the concepts full-circle by showing parents how to apply them in real life. The technology piece comes in the form of quantitative linguistic feedback gleaned from weekly recordings of a child’s language environment by the LENA word pedometer. This feedback is shared with parents as a tool to both motivate and track personal goals.
TMW is being designed for implementation on multiple levels: individually, in groups, via social media. The one-on-one interaction will facilitate relationship building and allow for personalized feedback and goal setting. The group sessions will focus on education and the harnessing and growth of social capital. And social media will provide additional access to resources and continuing education. At each level, TMW will work with the parent to lay the foundation for enriching their child’s global early language environment.
The TMW Curriculum
The Thirty Million Words® Initiative is more than just talk. We’ve pulled from multiple disciplines to build a comprehensive curriculum that targets both the cognitive and behavioral development of a child. Extensive formative development and testing has been done with parents, community stakeholders and interdisciplinary experts to achieve the highest degree of program efficacy.
The information is presented in a culturally sensitive and cognitively fluent manner, with an emphasis on increasing parent language input and parent-child interaction. Video modeling is used as a means for immediate and concrete feedback and strategies for behavior change are centered on daily routines to make incorporating TMW into day-to-day life as easy as possible.
- Parents are children’s first and most important teachers.
- Enriching a child’s early language environment occurs through promoting parent-child interactions that have been linked to positive child outcomes.
- Enriching a child’s early language environment does not require changing cultural practices and values or idiomatic speech.
- Parents are TMW’s most important collaborators. They have been part of the iterative process from the very beginning, creating, refining, and growing our curriculum into what it is today and what it will be tomorrow.
A child’s early language exposure is increasingly acknowledged as pivotal in language development and, more importantly, in ultimate educational and intellectual achievement. Studies have demonstrated a large inequality in children’s early language environments, with children from families of lower socioeconomic status hearing approximately thirty million words less than their peers from families of higher socioeconomic status. Furthermore, the number of words a child is exposed to between ages 0-3 is significantly correlated to the child’s ultimate IQ and academic success. The more parents talk to their children, the faster children’s vocabularies grow and the higher the children’s IQ test scores are at age three and later. Neither genetics nor a lack of potential lie at the heart of this inequity; rather, the thirty million word gap is a consequence of parental knowledge. This is the foundation upon which we have built the Thirty Million Words® Initiative.
In 2009, we tested quantitative linguistic feedback in a proof-of-concept feasibility trial with 17 caregivers of young children. Participants received a one-time educational intervention and completed 6 LENA recordings. While receiving the quantitative linguistic feedback, participants increased their talk and interaction with their charges. These promising results were published in Communication Disorders Quarterly, February 2013.
We’ve recently completed a randomized control trial of the TMW curriculum with parents from Chicago’s South Side. The treatment group received education during 8 weekly 1-hour home visits. The control group received a nutrition intervention during 8 weekly 5 to 10-minute home visits. All participants completed 14 LENA recordings, although only the treatment group received quantitative linguistic feedback. Participants receiving the TMW intervention significantly increased their talk and interaction with their children. Publication of this study is forthcoming.
With an eye toward participation at a community level, we are currently expanding TMW to include a center-based approach, starting with daycares. The inclusion of providers, coupled with parent-involvement, will allow for truly wrap-around enrichment of children’s early language environments.
While community-based rollout and a citywide initiative are logical next steps, the ultimate goal of the Thirty Million Words® Initiative is to have population-level impact. We believe parents are the key to achieving lasting, meaningful, and self-sustaining change on this scale, and they will remain the centerpiece in the continued iteration and development of our evidence-based intervention.