Poverty and CogDev, Part 3: Chatting with Babies

As a researcher, I’m supposed to be skeptical of anecdotes… but as a cognitive scientist, I am all too familiar with the data-supported psychological power of stories.

This anecdote from a recent NYTimes article has haunted me:

Last year, when I was visiting a public school in Sunset Park in Brooklyn for teenagers with boundless difficulties, my host, a poet who teaches at various city schools, mentioned a student who had become pregnant. Hoping to start a library for the child soon to arrive, the poet told the young woman embarking on motherhood that she would like to give her some books — books of the kind her own grandchildren growing up in a very different Brooklyn had by the dozens. The offer was met skeptically. “I already have one,” the girl said.

Most of the readers of this blog probably have a very different experience. Even 5-wk-old cogsci-baby (his visual acuity is largely limited to the space right in front of his face) is subjected to reading about the perils of sharing baked goods with rodents. Some of cogsci-toddler’s vocabulary words can be directly tied to particular books (how else would he learn about turtledoves, mayors, dunk tanks, and umbrellas — the last one, keep in mind that we live in southern California).

reading together

Unfortunately, this difference in attitude towards books is one of a group of differences that seems to ultimately impact the achievement gap, the difference in test scores between affluent and underprivileged students. A 2011 analysis of the income achievement gap (the average achievement difference between children from families at the 90th and 10th percentile of the family) suggests that this gap has increased in the last 50 years. In the 1970s, the income gap was half the size of the black-white gap; now the income gap is two times bigger than the black-white gap.

(Graph from hechingered.org)

Disturbingly, this income gap exists before children enter kindergarten and school does not seem to have an effect on narrowing the gap.

So what is going on?

Now classic research by Hart & Risley (1995), immortalized in their book called Meaningful Differences in the Lives of Young American Children, have demonstrated that children in professional families (these were families where one of the parents was a professor) hear more than twice as many words as children from welfare families.

(Graph from edsource.org — thanks google image search!)

In the graph above, check out where the differentiation begins… somewhere around 18 months you really see the professional families amping up how much they chatter with their kids. And recent amazing research by Ann Fernald of Stanford University has demonstrated that 18-month-olds show the income achievement gap!

Even though 18-month-olds don’t talk a whole lot (they typically only know less than 25 words), those from higher SES families are faster at processing words than those from low SES backgrounds. Fernald gave 18-month-olds a task where a recorded voice instructs them to look at common objects (e.g., “look at the ball!”) and the child is shown two pictures on the screen. She found that richer babies look at the correct object 200 ms faster than their poorer counterparts. This may seem like an insignificant difference, one that is undetectable in everyday interactions with 18-month-olds… true.

But consider the cascading effects (that’s the importance of considering DEVELOPMENT). A little difference early on means that the 18-month-old from a high SES family is going to comprehend sentences faster, learn other words faster, figure out context earlier. An initially tiny head start compounds on itself. This tiny speed differential leads to faster learning of new words, structures, ideas… and that leads to bigger and bigger differences. These differences grows through school and even in college, there is a graduation gap between equally achieving students (students with similar SAT scores)!

For many possible reasons, low SES parents engage in less conversation with their babies. Thankfully, recently research suggests that the solution is pretty simple… just encourage parents to talk more! More on that in Part 4!




4 thoughts on “Poverty and CogDev, Part 3: Chatting with Babies

  1. Margaret Lee says:

    Great post, Ji! Our next door neighbors have 4 kids (12 people living in a small house) and they do not have a single book! So I gave them a few books and sometimes try to read with them but only the oldest daughter (very bright girl with lots of potential) is interested. One of the boys was even held back a year because he could not read in the 1st grade. Their mom also complains how her daughter just wants to talk to her all the time. I’m very familiar with this research and teach social policy, but to see the “data” manifest in my personal life reinforces my conviction that the best shot at transformation has to happen through authentic relationships.

  2. treevalley says:

    dang, im so blessed to be married to you (and not just because you are the one professor parent in our family).

  3. Alice says:

    We still haven’t bought any books for our baby who is due to arrive any day now. LOL! Anyway, I don’t remember having children’s books around our home before I was the age of 8. But I do remember being told a lot of Bible stories and Korean folktales by various adults before my parents started buying me books.

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