Providence talks

Language Log 2013-03-15

Emily Badger, "Providence Wins Mayors Challenge Prize for Early Childhood Project", The Atlantic Cities, 3/13/2013:

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg likes to say that cities are the new laboratories of democracy in the United States (sorry states!), particularly in an era of political paralysis in Washington. This was the premise behind the $9 million Mayor's Challenge launched last summer by Bloomberg Philanthropies, inviting any city with a population larger than 30,000 to submit a groundbreaking idea for funding. This morning, Bloomberg announced the five winners – including a $5 million grand prize to Providence, Rhode Island – for potentially replicable innovations "bubbling up" from cities in early childhood education, recycling, data analytics, civic entrepreneurship and resident wellbeing. […]

Grand Prize ($5 million): Providence, Rhode Island: Research suggests that in just the first few years of life, low-income children hear millions fewer words than their middle- and upper-income counterparts, impacting the development of their vocabularies and setting back their long-term prospects for academic and career success. This program aims to close that "word gap."

The AP story explains further (David Klepper, "Providence, RI, wins $5M Bloomberg contest with plan to boost poor children's language skills"):

Providence's winning proposal will equip low-income children with recording devices that count the words and conversations they are exposed to. Combined with coaching lessons for parents,, the plan is designed to help poor children overcome a language skills deficit that develops before they even start kindergarten. […]

Called "Providence Talks," Taveras' plan will make use of a pager-sized recorder put in a child's pocket that acts as a language pedometer, recording every conversation and word spoken to them through the course of their day. The city intends to offer the voluntary program to children in low-income families, as determined by newborn screening assessments. Their parents will receive monthly coaching sessions from social workers in which they learn ways to boost a child's vocabulary, and social work agencies will be given bonuses if a child's language skills improve.

The recording devices work in English, Spanish and other languages and automatically screen out conversations from television and radio. The recordings will be kept confidential and once the devices' data are analyzed, any conversations on the recordings will be deleted. To prevent a 3year-old from losing or damaging the recorders, the devices come with specially designed clothing to hold them in place.

Providence Talks would begin with a small number of children participating and gradually expand the program to 2,850 families by 2018.

I haven't been able to find out who makes the devices, or what technologies they use for word counting, speaker identification, "automatically screening out conversations from television and radio", and so on. The story in the NYT (Jennifer Steinhauer, "Providence Is Top City in Contest of Ideas") is less informative and more confusing:

Providence took the grand prize for its plans to improve early childhood literacy. The children who participate in the program would wear a small device called a digital language processor that would record their daily interactions with adults. Those would then be converted into audio files containing the day’s adult word count and the number of conversational turns. That data would be used to help parents in monthly coaching sessions improve the quality of their conversations to improve their children’s vocabulary.

Here's a presentation of the project by Angel Taveras, the mayor of Providence:

The "30 million word gap" is an idea that comes from the work of Betty Hart and Todd Risley (Betty Hart and Todd Risley, "Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children", 1995; Betty Hart, "A Natural History of Early Language Experience", Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 20(1), 2000; Betty Hart and Todd Risley, "The Early Catastrophe: the 30 Million Word Gap", American Educator, 27(1) pp. 4-9, 2003).

When I discussed this work a few years ago ("Word counts", 11/28/2006), I worried that big inferences were being drawn from a rather small sample. From Hart and Risley 2003:

By age 3, children from privileged families have heard 30 million more words than children from underprivileged families. Longitudinal data on 42 families examined what accounted for enormous differences in rates of vocabulary growth. Children turned out to be like their parents in stature, activity level, vocabulary resources, and language and interaction styles. Follow-up data indicated that the 3-year-old measures of accomplishment predicted third grade school achievement. […]

Our final sample consisted of 42 families who remained in the study from beginning to end. From each of these families, we have almost 2 1/2 years or more of sequential monthly hour-long observations. On the basis of occupation, 13 of the families were upper socioeconomic status (SES), 10 were middle SES, 13 were lower SES, and six were on welfare.

The "30 million word gap" compares the 13 upper SES families with the 6 welfare families, and the authors themselves caution against "extrapolating their findings to people and circumstances they did not include":

All parent-child research is based on the assumption that the data (laboratory or field) reflect what people typically do. In most studies, there are as many reasons that the averages would be higher than reported as there are that they would be lower. But all researchers caution against extrapolating their findings to people and circumstances they did not include. Our data provide us, however, a first approximation to the absolute magnitude of children’s early experience, a basis sufficient for estimating the actual size of the intervention task needed to provide equal experience and, thus, equal opportunities to children living in poverty. We depend on future studies to refine this estimate. […]

There's some more discussion of these issues in "Nick Clegg and the Word Gap", 10/16/2010, along with references to some much larger studies which confirm striking differences in vocabulary development, but do not tie these to measures of verbal experience.

The Providence project will draw everyone's attention to the importance of verbal interactions in early childhood, and should give participating parents useful feedback on their own young children's experiences. But I believe that the potential scientific results could be even more important, if the data can also be used to validate the Hart/Risely results on a large enough dataset that some of the many confounds in the original small study can be untangled.