Bridging the Word Gap: A National Effort

Bridging the Word Gap: A National Effort

Karen Henry

ribbon cutting photo

Professor of Special Education and Senior Scientist Judith Carta, Kansas City, Missouri Mayor Sly James, Associate Research Professor Dale Walker and Professor of Applied Behavioral Science and Senior Scientist Charles Greenwood.

On October 17, 2014, a grant award was announced at a White House event that recognized the decades of leadership by the University of Kansas Life Span Institute in discovering and addressing the so-called “30 million word gap.”

This phrase, now a cultural byword for educators and policymakers alike, refers to the vast difference in the number of words that some children from poverty backgrounds hear by age four compared to those of children from more affluent homes. First identified by the seminal research of Betty Hart and Todd Risley, this early difference in the amount and quality of talk to which infants and toddlers are exposed often leads to an ever-widening disparity in children’s vocabulary and early literacy skills once they are in school.

Judith Carta, Charles Greenwood and Dale Walker direct the national network of experts in language and literacy development called the Bridging the Word Gap Network. Like Hart and Risley before them, they are research scientists at the Juniper Gardens Children’s Project, which Greenwood directs, located in a low-income Kansas City, Kansas neighborhood.

“We have learned valuable lessons about how to address this gap using evidence-based interventions for improving children’s language learning environments, but many children are still not reaping the benefits from our research,” said Carta. “It is time to bring these lessons to scale and to more fully integrate them into a forward-looking agenda of research and practice.”

The network is part of a larger Bridging the Word Gap effort endorsed by the White House and coordinated by the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

As more communities around the country are mounting city- and state-wide efforts to work with parents and childcare providers to bridge the word gap, the research network will help researchers learn the most effective ways to address this urgent issue, Walker said. “Our aim is to reduce the number of children entering school with delays in language and early literacy.”

Members of the Bridging the Word Gap Research Network are Ann Kaiser, Vanderbilt University; Howard Goldstein, University of South Florida; Scott McConnell, University of Minnesota; Dana Suskind, Thirty Million Words Initiative, University of Chicago; Meagan Bair-Merritt, Boston Medical Center; Margaret Burchinal, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Temple University and Roberta Golinkoff, University of Delaware.

The five-year grant is funded by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Update March 2017:

Dale Walker, associate research professor at the Juniper Gardens Children’s Project and co-director of the Bridging the Word Gap Research Network, was the discussant for a symposium on research to close the "word gap" at the 2017 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held Feb. 16-20 in Boston. “Aiming for Success from Birth: Community Programs to End the Poverty of Words,” highlighted efforts that are part of the Bridging the Word Gap Research Network’s Practice-Based Research Collaborative. The collaborative, led by Walker, includes 12 projects that are working to address the word gap nationwide.

The symposium discussed the only U.S. statewide initiative to bridge the word gap by integrating language nutrition coaching into the work of the state’s nursing and Women, Infants, and Children nutritionist work forces. A second project builds on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation to promote literacy in primary care, integrating a major metropolitan area’s pediatric health initiative with public library outreach. A third researcher presented a citywide program to monitor and counsel parents and childcare providers using a “word pedometer.” See the full abstract for the symposium.

Walker was also featured in a PBS NewsHour (Facebook) interview during AAAS in which she explains the word gap and offers examples of how parents can enrich the language development of their children: