Program takes on learning gap among R.I. children

Providence Talks’ members use device to expose and build children’s vocabularies

Staff Writer
Thursday, February 13, 2014

The pilot phase of Providence Talks, the city’s program designed to measure and reduce the word gap between children from low- and high-income families, was launched Feb. 3.

In the program, a recording device called a LENA Pro is attached to a child’s clothing to record conversations and measure the number of words that the child is exposed to, said Kenneth Wong, professor of education and leader of the research team. “Parents only need to push two buttons and it reads for 16 hours straight.”

The purpose is to count the “sheer number” of words the child encounters, said Toby Shepherd, deputy director of policy for Mayor Angel Taveras.

Members of the Providence Talks team will visit homes in which families are employing the LENA Pro device to discuss the number of words their children were exposed to and subsequently coach parents in vocabulary-building strategies, Shepherd said.

“Home visitors (will also) work with parents on different talking tips,” Shepherd said. “It’s about the relationship between the visitor and parent.”

Participating families get a year’s worth of service through Providence Talks, he said. The home visitor will make biweekly visits for the first four months and then monthly visits for the next eight months, Shepherd added.

The data from the devices will be sent to Colorado for processing and will then be returned to Providence as anonymous data for the research team at Brown to analyze, Wong said.

“We’re hopeful that Providence Talks will have both short-term and long-term  outcomes,” Shepherd said. In the short term, children will be exposed to more words, he said. In the long term, the initiative could raise the percentage of kindergarteners ready for class, he added.

“We have data that shows two-thirds of our kindergarteners are already behind on their first day of class,” Shepherd said.

By working with University researchers, the city can also assess the long-term impact of the Providence Talks program on academic performance measures like high school graduation rates, he added.

Funding for the initiative comes from the city’s $5 million grant it won from the Mayors Challenge, a competition sponsored by former New York City Mayor Bloomberg last March. The challenge was “for cities that have innovative ideas … that can be done in other places,” Shepherd said.

Providence Talks is now in the pilot stage, during which 70-80 families are expected to participate, Wong said.

Current participants comprise parents who volunteered early to help ensure their kids are ready for the first day of kindergarten, Shepherd said. His family was among the first families to test out the LENA Pro, Shepherd added.

Mayor Angel Taveras also volunteered to try out the “word-pedometer” with his two-year-old daughter, Farah Rose, Wong said.

The next step is to “size up,” Wong said, adding that after the pilot phase, the city intends to open the program to families in high-need areas starting in September.

The initiative will hopefully reach all Providence families with young children, Shepherd said.