The widening education gap between the rich and the poor is not news to those who work in education, many of whom have been struggling to close the gap beginning the day poor children enter kindergarten or preschool. But one unlikely soldier has joined the fight: a pediatric surgeon who wants to get started way before kindergarten. She wants to start closing the gap the day babies are born.

When Dr. Dana Suskind began doing cochlear implants on infants at the University of Chicago—a cutting-edge surgical technique that allows once-deaf babies to hear—in her follow-ups with families she noticed a stark difference in how the now-hearing children acquired language. Once they could hear, some children’s language skills thrived and grew, while others languished. Why this was so began to nag at her. What was causing some children to leap ahead in their language skills?

The difference turned out to be the words children heard from their parents and caregivers, millions of them. Baby talk, explaining and describing, asking questions even when they weren’t going to get an answer — adults “using their words” is the thing that some parents and caregivers do thousands of time a day that builds a baby’s brain.

While auditing a graduate-level course on child language development at the University of Chicago, Suskind heard about the groundbreaking Hart and Risley study on the differences in how parents from different income levels interacted with their children. After painstakingly following around families and recording how often they talked to their children, Hart and Risley found that the children of professional parents heard approximately 11 million words in a year, while children from poor welfare families heard only 3 million. Extrapolated over time, Hart and Risley surmised that, by the time poor children turned 4, they had heard 30 million fewer words than their richer counterparts.

There was a direct correlation between the children who’d heard a lot of parent talk and how prepared they were to learn once they arrived at school. Hart and Risley wrote, “With few exceptions, the more parents talked to their children, the faster the children’s vocabularies [grew] and the higher the children’s IQ test scores at age 3 and later.”

For Suskind, a lightbulb went on.

“The truth is, much of what you see in children born into poverty is analogous to children born deaf,” Suskind said. “It’s a really important point. The most fundamental science shows that it’s really language, and all that comes with it, the brain-building aspect of things, that makes a difference.”

Bringing Parents On Board

In Suskind’s new book, “Thirty Million Words,” she explains the research behind the word gap in detail, along with her research-based initiative of the same name, aimed at boosting children’s brains in the first three years of their lives. Working together with researchers at the University of Chicago, Suskind and her team have created an action-based curriculum already used in home visits with 200 families of infants and young children, all of whom will be followed all the way to kindergarten. Their upcoming maternity ward curriculum will launch soon with 350 families, and they hope to expand the program to pediatric well-child visits.

Suskind’s vision was not just to give parents a directive — you need to talk more to your child. She wanted them to understand why. Understanding that you are the architect of your child’s early brain development, said Suskind, is “extremely powerful.”

Many parents believe that because they didn’t do well in school themselves, they have no business “teaching” their babies anything. But showing them how simply talking, even baby talking (which Suskind calls “child-directed speech,” and said gets an undeserved bad rap), to their children can make a difference, changes their minds.

“This is the most empowering, affirming science that you can share with parents,” Suskind said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘You’re the baby’s most important teacher,’ because they don’t really believe it. You have to show them.”

Of course, some words are more powerful than others. In a 2014 report on the “PBS NewsHour” regarding the word gap, a similar effort to increase parent awareness in Providence, Rhode Island, used a Language Environment Analysis (LENA) word pedometer to count the number of words that low-income children heard in a day. Then a social worker would tally the word counts to show parents how much they were, or weren’t, interacting with their child. The report found that the LENA counted the words, but couldn’t assess the message. In other words, as correspondent John Tulenko pointed out, “Damn, why do you always make such a mess?” counted the same number of words as “Honey, you are cute, let’s clean you up.”

Hart and Risley’s research found the message counted as much as the number of words, and the number of encouraging words also differed across socioeconomic lines. They found children in low-income families “heard more than double the negative remarks per hour” compared with the children of professionals, who were much more likely to hear “Good job!” or “You’re right!”

“Even without science, we know intuitively that saying ‘shut up’ 30 million times is not going to help a child develop into an intelligent, productive, stable adult,” Suskind writes. She said that teaching parents the right kind of positive talk is built into the curriculum, and will be monitored for their ongoing longitudinal study of Thirty Million Words outcomes.

“The [Thirty Million Words] home visiting curriculum has an entire module devoted to encouragements — specifically person-based and process-based praise — which has been very well received by parents,” she said. “We explain the difference between praising the child versus praising the child for what he or she is doing, and how the latter actually builds resilience and determination in young children.”

Suskind found that, once parents understood the science of language-building, many were eager to try it out. To show parents how baby brain-building is easier than they might think, the Thirty Million Words team broke down language-building into three steps:

* Tune In. “Tuning in” asks parents to follow the child’s lead, to stop what they are doing and join their child, engaging and connecting with them. Often this step means parents need to get down on the floor and help build the Lego castle, or color a page in the coloring book.

* Talk More. Just like it sounds: Use more words and a rich vocabulary. Narrate the changing of a diaper or doing laundry, use descriptive words. Talk about the past or the future.

* Take Turns. Suskind said many parents say, “But my baby doesn’t have any words! How can we have a conversation?” Viewing young children as a conversational partner means parents can respond to anything — a gesture, gurgle or burp — to begin showing young children how to have a conversation.

Here, Suskind slyly slips in a “fourth T”: Turn off the technology to engage with your child. “We’re all at risk now, the technology is so seductive,” said Suskind, admitting that families of all income levels should find time to peel themselves away from technology to tune in and talk. While it’s not realistic to imagine never again getting immersed in a smartphone, understanding why technology doesn’t grow babies’ brains is valuable.

Human brains are hardwired for social interaction, and the brain-building benefits of Tuning In, Talking More, and Taking Turns happen when it’s coming from a real human being, not a TV or tablet. Yet there are certain technologies that can actually increase social interaction: “A recent study shows that if you had a Skype with your grandmother,” Suskind said, “somebody on the other side of the screen responding [to your child], that counts! A human being on the other side of the technology works.”


Suskind’s passion for talk is infectious, and she hopes to turn not only parents who have benefited from the Three Million Words program into evangelists, but teachers and day-care providers, too. She encourages educators to tell parents about the science of talking to children, and to explain that any opportunity, even the most mundane, is an opportunity to practice the Three Ts. Especially reading a book together.

“It’s really about having a conversation over the book,” she said. “You don’t have to read every word if the child doesn’t want to. It’s really about having a conversation, tuning in to what your baby is interested in, talking about the pictures.”

Near the end of “Thirty Million Words,” Suskind writes about James, a young dad who used the Three Ts with his son, Marcus, and then began telling everyone in his life about how he learned to talk to children. He even enlisted the help of his son’s day-care teacher.

“She knew a bit about it, but not about Tuning In or the fact that watching TV doesn’t teach words in a way that stick,” James told Suskind. “When I learned new things, I always brought them to her and she would start using them at the day care.”

Suskind said this kind of spreading the word is crucial to getting the information out. “Sure, I want teachers to read it [the book],” Suskind said. “But I want them to feel empowered, I want them to become evangelists. Because, unless the whole population understands how important parents and teachers are, we’re never going to get the investment.”

What Parents Can Gain From Learning the Science of Talking to Kids 15 October,2015Holly Korbey

  • Dan

    We really should educate kids right before they grow up. It helps both parties to learn.

  • Laura Wildzunas

    We need a culture change! Can we get this article out to the maternity wards at hospitals? This needs to be shared with new mothers just like the benefits of breastfeeding are shared.

    • Barefoot in MN

      yes, new moms – and new fathers, too. Men naturally use fewer words than women; if they know how pivotal their words can be, it can encourage them to “save some talking energy” for the munchkins at home. 🙂

  • Sandie Barrie Blackley, MA/CCC

    Terrific article! Suskind’s work sounds very much like a project I was involved with back in the 1970s –The Abecedarian Project at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Of course, more is known now– including the insights from Hart & Risley’s ground-breaking research and from the Harlem Children’s Zone . And we have technologies now that were not available back then, including “technologies that increase social interaction”. Technology has to be used judiciously, as the experience with LENA suggests, but it can help scale interventions. This is such important work as children’s early language experiences have knock-on effects for reading and writing skills, for academic achievement, for mental and physical health and for employment and earning potential.

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  • Jeanne Deaux

    You can’t lay all the responsibility for talking onto parents. Better-off children don’t just hear their parents talking, they hear other people talking too, because people with more money actually have social lives. What happens with people who are poor is we’ve decided they’re too negative (even this article plays up that idea, what about better-off people who say horrible things to kids? It happens) and that their poverty must be catching and we want nothing to do with them. Stay in your project, stay in your rural town, stay in your crappy little apartment that you can barely afford and don’t bother anybody. I experienced that myself. When you’re anxious and/or depressed about your situation you can tend to forget to talk. When no one is in the house with you, you can tend to forget to talk. If other people bothered having anything to do with you, respecting you for the human being you are, there would be more voices and there would be conversation and the child would be benefiting whether you talk to them directly or not.

    Stop ghettoizing the poor and treating them like lepers!

    • Lorry frey

      Stop making this your soapbox opportunity. I worked in a children’s hospital,when I was a new graduate nurse. There were decided differences between groups as they related to their children. Period. For whatever the reason language deficits can be addressed. Children can be helped.

  • Lydia Chouinard

    The only blaring concern of mine while reading this article was the blaming tone of low-income families. I could do without that and still be interested in the valuable information in this article. Unfortunately it is a turn off. I know rich parents that do not interact with their children and “poor” parents that do. I think in general most parents want what’s best for their kids and for them to be successful in school. Teaching this type of engagement/ interaction across the board is important. Don’t put a stigma on low income families that emphasizes the us vs. them mentality. By furthering biases among different classes you make your very target audience uncomfortable, intensify trust issues and will have the door close on you as far as entering physically into their home or your ideas disregarded. Nutrition is taught universally, diaper care, etc. I am proud to know several low-income parents who are doing a great job. If the information of this article wasnt glazed with negativity towards “the poor” I would share the article.

    • Ellen

      I think it’s important to acknowledge that low-income doesn’t mean unintelligent. It means poor or less-affluent. The problem may be less opportunity for parent/child interaction due to hectic work/home situations or inadequate child care or overcrowded preschool programs, where meeting basic needs trumps the educational needs.

    • PeonInChief

      I agree, but the article doesn’t address other problems that may limit parents’ interaction with their children. If we want parents to do this, we have to make sure that they aren’t working three jobs to afford the rent, don’t have to move every year and so on. A parent who comes home to take care of the kids between her second and third job is a lot more likely to tell the kids to “shut up”, not because she’s evil or doesn’t care, but because it’s all she can do to get dinner on the table before she has to leave again. If we really want young children to get these interactions, we need to pay parents more for their labor (or have an income support system), provide affordable housing near work centers, excellent childcare and so on.

  • Peachblossom

    May I respectfully suggest that we not shoot the messenger here folks, the article is merely presenting the results of research studies which do, in fact show that children raised in poverty hear fewer words by a certain age than children raised in more affluent settings and that this trend often translates to a lower IQ and less success in school. The reasons for this disparity may be numerous such as poorer parents having to work 2 jobs and having less time to spend with their child, having limited options when it comes to childcare, having a lower level of education themselves, or single parenting which effectively cuts in half the opportunity for parental interactions. I don’t see this as a “judgement” against parents struggling in a lower socioeconomic state. I see this as a wake up call regarding the neccessity of universal family leave policies, quality childcare for all children and solid early childhood education programs that engage these young minds during that crucial stage.

  • Katharyn Head

    Hi Holly, thanks for this article! Very intriguing project. One thing that struck me, though, was the equating of deafness and a perceived automatic lack of access to language and its consequent effects. True, this can certainly be the case if deaf children are in an environment with access to only spoken language. If parents instead interact with their children using sign language, however, they are able to develop natural language (and everything that goes along with it) just as their hearing peers can. Deafness does not induce lower IQ or a lack language fluency.

    • Barefoot in MN

      good points… part of the issue with Hearing children of Deaf parents, is that parts of the brain are originally “wired” to work with certain organs – for example, some areas work by preference/design with processing what the eyes detect. When that organ is damaged or lost the brain re-wires itself to compensate. That’s why, for example, a person who was Deaf from birth will be able to understand the signing of another Deaf person very easily: the parts of their brain meant to process sounds, are instead re-wired to process sighted data. So in one sense the Hearing children of Deaf parents have an advantage over hearing children of hearing parents…. but in another sense, the Deaf parents’ Hearing child needs (even more greatly) to interact with speaking people, so their Hearing brain can grow in that way as well. It’s a little like growing up bilingual.

      And this doesn’t even address the differences in the two languages! Deaf “english” (American Sign Language) is more conceptual than spoken English. Hearing people (especially those speaking English, as opposed to a language with a smaller vocabulary) tend to use more synonyms with subtler shades of meaning; that’s why Signed Exact English eventually becomes necessary. Ask any interpreter for the Deaf what it’s like to translate poetry or song lyrics into ASL (sigh). 🙂

  • Mayra

    Absolutely love and agree with this article!! Very interesting! I really want to share it with my husband. I usually translate articles for him but this one is on the longer side. Is there any tool I can use to translate It to Spanish? thank you!! Great article!!

  • Reina Lam

    Here is a start up trying to support parents in interacting with their kids and speaking with them more often!!

    • Thanks Reina! I am one of the co-founders of VersaMe and we appreciate the support!

  • Joan Parris

    Can you tell us the name of the curriculum being used?

  • Lovely and very informative article! Communication during the first few years of a child’s life can be a game-changer.

    The quote “you are the architect of your child’s early brain” says it all!

    Read Aloud Dad

  • Glumbumble

    Instead of putting so much money into this, which is just common sense, put that money towards figuring out how to help low income families more. Of course low income families are going to be stressed and not talk as often. Of course they’re going to talk more negatively, because their moods are horrible because they’re stressing all the time! So how about we figure out a way to help lower income families so they’re not worrying about money quite as much. I bet within two years they’ll see probably a thousand or more words a day increase over the worthless 500 words.

  • mglamb

    I am a speech/language pathologist who assesses pre-schoolers from ages 3 to 5. I cannot tell you the number of children who are referred to us because they have limited expressive language. When I meet with the parents, I am told how great they are with technology and how proficient they are with iPads and iPhones. I always have to explain that there is “No app for your lap” and have to spell out for them how too much time on an iPad is bad for their language development. It always comes as a surprise to them because in their mind, they are “learning so much” from these apps. Yes but the apps don’t teach them how to talk. The apps don’t engage them in conversation. The apps don’t teach them social skills or the nuances of language interactions. I had one mom tell me just today that she found an app that talks back to her son! I had to stress to her that it is not the same as her talking to him. I have had parents tell me that they don’t read to their kids! I have to stress how important reading is to them. Sometimes I feel that I am batting my head against a wall. It is so very frustrating and so very sad. I wish that parents understood how important it is to talk to you child. So many don’t. So frustrating.

  • Lorry frey

    As a nursing educator at a local university I welcomed my first grandchild 19 years ago with great enthusiasm. My graduate work in education turned me on to many new approaches in my career. When Erin arrived I decided to spend considerable time talking, explaining, showing, Erin how the world worked. Time magazine had published a wonderful article on babies brains and their incredible ability to learn. Erin’s mother worked full time in allied health and I had considerable time with her. When I read to her I pointed to the words and connected them to the story and pictures. She quickly learned the relationships although she is a slow reader and doesn’t read that much. But she was a mostly A student throughout school. Today she has completed her first

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Holly Korbey

Holly Korbey’s work on parenting and education has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Babble, Brain, Child Magazine, and others. She lives in Nashville with her family. Follow her on Twitter: @HKorbey

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