Providence Talks literacy program to expand beyond pilot phase

Word pedometers count number of new words children hear as part of effort to close literacy gap

Contributing Writer
Thursday, November 6, 2014

Providence Talks — a literacy program aimed at increasing reading readiness in lower-income children — plans for expansion as its pilot phase, which began Feb. 3, comes to a close, said Rob Horowitz, spokesperson for Providence Talks.

The program was inspired by research that suggests the existence of a gap between the number of words heard by children from lower-income families compared to those of higher-income families, according to an October White House press release.

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras launched the program after winning the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayor’s Challenge in 2013. Upon winning the award, Providence was given a $5 million implementation award, according to the program’s website.

Through the program, the 58 children involved in the pilot phase were each outfitted with a device called a word pedometer, which measures the number of words heard by a child as well as the child’s number of “conversational interactions,” Horowitz said. Children wear the pedometer — which can record audio for up to 16 hours — all day and take it off when they go to bed, according to the Providence Talks website.

Children’s Friend and Meeting Street, two local nonprofit social service agencies, worked to recruit families to participate in the program’s pilot phase, the Providence Journal reported at the time of the pilot’s launch.

Families participating in the program also receive twice-monthly visits from educators, who review the pedometer’s data with them and teach them strategies to enhance conversational engagement with their children, Horowitz said. The educators also supply age-appropriate books for parents to read to their children, he added.

In the coming year, the program plans to expand to 500 families, Horowitz said, adding that it hopes to reach 2,000 by 2016. “I think we have a good plan about how to get there, but it will take a little while,” he said. “Our goal is to make it accessible to any family in Providence who wants to participate.”

Horowitz called the preliminary results of the pilot program “promising.” Families that started with low word daily counts increased their word usage by about 50 percent and their conversational turns — the switching back and forth between child and parent during dialogue ­— by 30 percent.

“I am quite favorably leaning towards the notion that this program will produce positive outcomes,” said Kenneth Wong, department chair of education, who Taveras asked in 2012 to help with the program’s planning and implementation. Wong was involved in the program’s grant-writing process, which lasted until March 2013 when the grant was approved, and continued his work through the pilot phase.

But at a White House conference last month, entitled “Federal, State and Local Efforts to Bridge the Word Gap: Sharing Best Practices and Lessons Learned,” Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University, presented her research findings, which suggest that the quality of words spoken to children may be more important than the quantity of words they hear. This concept is the focus of the Providence Talks program.

“When you have something like a word gap, your tendency is … to fix it by filling it,” Hirsh-Pasek told The Herald. “Everything is headed in the right direction because you’re bringing more of a focus on how important this gap is,” she said of Providence Talks. “My cautionary note, however, is that we have to be careful moving forward to focus on the quality of the interactions as much as the quantity.”

At the end of the pilot phase, Wong and his colleagues recommended that the program use a “more scientific design to study the impact of the program,” he said, adding that this entails separating the effects of reading to children from the effects of speaking with children, he said.

“We also tried to encourage the use of Spanish because some parents are fluent in Spanish and might be less fluent in English,” Wong said, adding, “This is a very exciting but also very complex initiative.”

Wong called Providence Talks a “major municipal investment” and noted that its findings may “have important implications across the country.”

Other cities are considering implementing programs similar to Providence Talks, he said.