KU researchers will lead national bridging the word gap network announced at White House

KU researchers will lead national bridging the word gap network announced at White House

Karen Henry

University of Kansas researchers will direct a new national network of experts in language and literacy development called Bridging the Word Gap Network with a two-year grant of $593,000 from the Department of Health and Human Services. The award was announced Thursday at a White House event on federal, state, and local efforts to bridge the so-called “30 million word gap,” referring to the vast difference in the number of words that some children from poverty backgrounds hear by age 4 compared with the experiences of other more affluent children.

First identified at the University of Kansas 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.

The team of KU researchers leading the network includes Judith Carta, professor of special education and senior scientist; Charles Greenwood, professor of applied behavioral science and senior scientist, and Dale Walker, associate research professor, from KU’s Juniper Gardens Children’s Project, which Greenwood directs, located in a low-income Kansas City, Kansas, neighborhood at the Children’s Campus of Kansas City.

“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.”

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, Carta said. “Our aim is to reduce the number of children entering school with school with delays in language and early literacy.”

The network will be 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.

“This is a collaboration of nationally recognized researchers, practitioners, policymakers and funders joining together to develop and push forward a coordinated national research agenda to develop individual, community and population-based interventions that address the word gap experienced by young children in poverty,” said Walker.

Mayor Sly James and a representative from Mayor Mark Holland’s office were among the community leaders attending the White House event from the KC Metro. Mayor James expanded the Talk Read Play initiative in Kansas City this year that was created through a collaborative effort by the Children’s Campus of Kansas City and community partners from the KC Metropolitan area in 2013. This effort is similar to other citywide initiatives such as that in Providence, Rhode Island; Chicago; Oakland, California, and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Members of this new Bridging the Word Gap Research Network leadership team are an interdisciplinary group of distinguished scientists selected for their roles because of their expertise in carrying out intervention research that has made a difference in the lives of young children and their families in poverty, said Walker. They are Ann Kaiser, Vanderbilt University; Howard Goldstein, University of South Florida; Scott McConnell University of Minnesota; Dr. Dana Suskind, director of the 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 of Temple University and Roberta Golinkoff of the University of Delaware. These scientists will be collaborating with research experts from the fields of psychology, medicine, education and speech pathology along with policymakers, funders and directors of early education programs to develop successful approaches to providing children with the language experiences that will pave the way to later successful outcomes.