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Early education program addresses R.I. youth literacy

Providence Talks aims to close word gap for children in low-income households

The number of words children hear in their first three years critically impacts their future development, and children from lower-income families will have heard 30 million fewer words than their peers when they start kindergarten, according to a widely cited University of Kansas study.

This word gap harms educational growth — in 2013, two thirds of Providence children starting kindergarten fell short of Rhode Island’s literacy tests, according to a report by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Providence Talks, an early intervention program developed through the mayor’s  office, hopes to close this gap and allow children to enter school with a solid foundation of vocabulary.

Mayor Jorge Elorza has slated an additional $500,000 to go towards the program for the 2018 fiscal year. “It’s the only program of its kind working at scale to address this specific issue and we’re proud to have incubated it in our city,” Elorza said in a statement.

Since 2013, Providence Talks has succeeded in helping more than 2,500 children bolster their vocabularies, according to Executive Director Caitlin Molina. Nearly two-thirds of the children who participated in the program increased their vocabularies and were exposed to 50 percent more words than before they enrolled.

“We look at how we can strengthen the language environment of home,” Molina said. “We need to be sensitive to all of the social and emotional factors in the home and how this impacts the child’s language development.”

There are many factors that potentially hinder children’s language development, such as whether they are raised in a single-parent household, the education level of their parents or if their parents work, Molina said. A child that qualifies for the program must be under the age of three, born in Providence and with at least one risk factor identified on the Rhode Island Newborn Screening, Molina said.

Providence Talks relies on an innovative “talk pedometer” created by the educational technology company LENA, which tracks the number of words and back-and-forth conversational interactions that a child experiences over the course of a day, Molina said. Coaches then analyze a child’s word count to provide complementary guidance strategies for parents and caregivers to enhance their engagement and vocabulary building exercises within the home.

Strategies for improving a child’s word exposure include modeling choices during meal time (“Do you want ketchup or mustard?”) and asking open-ended inquiries rather than yes or no questions, Molina said.

The pedometer also filters out words from other forms of media, such as television. The context in which children hear these words matters because when children hear words on TV “they are not necessarily processing it,” said Khadija Lewis Khan, executive director of Beautiful Beginnings, a childcare program serving mostly working class families. The center was the first to have its educators trained by Providence Talks and saw its educators increase their daily word count by over 7,000, according to Lewis Khan.

In addition to weekly meetings with eligible parents, Providence Talks has trained over 250 early childhood educators, according to Leslie Gell, director of Ready to Learn Providence, a program at Roger Williams University School of Continuing Studies. 

“We know that educators are learning and implementing strategies that support language and literacy development, a critical component of kindergarten readiness and school success,” Gell said in a statement. “They are also sustaining the practices, indicating that the beneficiaries are not only their current children but children they will care for in the future.”

The Providence Talks program is not just for English language learners, Molina said. All trainers speak Spanish as well, and the strategies employed by Providence Talks can work with any language. The key is to strengthen the vocabulary learning environment of the child’s native language, whatever it may be, she added.

“It’s very important for ESL learners to have a good foundation in their own language in order to acquire the English language well,” Lewis Khan said.

While it’s clear Providence Talks is making a difference in the lives of many of its participants, Molina hopes to understand which families are benefiting the most from the program, she said. Providence Talks is currently partnering with researcher Kenneth Wong, professor of education policy, on an independent evaluation of the program’s impact.



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