Monday, April 14, 2008

Language and Children Living in Poverty

All poor children are not alike. They do not share the same culture. They do not share common language practices. They do share economic deprivations but even then poor families tend to move in and out of poverty. Poor children are also at higher risk for academic failure but, as Jonathon Kozol has documented, children living in poverty are rarely offered the same, high quality educational opportunities experienced by their more affluent peers.

Yet school districts serving large numbers of poor children continue to undertake initiatives that implicitly blame the poor for their economic, social, and academic struggles. A recent article in the Boston Globe (“With babies, words for wisdom,” April 2, 2008) described Boston’s “Early Words” program that seeks to increase the amount of talk low-income parents direct to their children. According to the Globe, the rationale for this initiative comes Betty Hart and Todd Risley’s 1995 study that “showed that by age 3, most middle-class children had much larger vocabularies than children from low-income families. Middle-class parents speak, on average, 300 more words per hour to their children, according to the [Hart and Risley] study.” (See my earlier blog on Hart and Risley.)

I’m all for parents talking to their children. What troubles me is the presumption that low-income parents don’t talk to their children. It seems more that a little unreasonable to make general claims about parents and children living in poverty based on Hart and Risley’s study of six poor families from Kansas City, all of whom were Black. It would be very hard to argue that these families have much in common with poor families here in Boston or anywhere else in the country.

I think we should focus less on what poor parents may or may not be saying to their children and consider the frightful toll poverty takes on poor children and their families. Recent research by neuroscientists, for example, indicates that the heightened stress levels associated with living in poverty may impair the brain development of children, limiting their future life chances (“Here and Now,” March 6, 2008). This line of research makes it pretty clear that the problem for poor children is poverty, not parents who are poor.


Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure I would jump to that conclusion. Stress and the risk factors associated with poverty definitely have an effect on academic achievement. But the issue is complicated, and many studies, not just the Hart and Risley study show that parental education is highly correlated to educational outcomes. In a complex situation like this, it's difficult to tell cause from effect, or to see where one problem ends and the next begins. All these factors are inextricably connected. It's not just's everything that comes along with it. Money is important for what it can buy, otherwise it's just paper. If a poor family won the lottery, would all their problems be solved? Would they manage that money wisely, save for their children's college education? Maybe, but maybe not. Nothing can be discounted. We have to look at the whole picture. And a parent's language is definitely an important part of that.

Anonymous said...

Talking to your child not only increases their language acquisition skills and increases the chance of academic success; it also promotes attachment between parent and child. Irrelevant of other factors, a child brain needs that particular parent-child connection to develop appropriately. It needs this kind of connection so that the level of the stress hormone cortisol is balanced with serotonin and dopamine, thus mitigating for the impact you reference in the latter study.

Anonymous said...

Phentemine's growing reputation for being risk free, natural and safe for permanent weight loss treatment has helped it to become a best supplement today. The value of Phen375 is much higher in terms of ingredients used for making it. Also to finish everything off you may wish to start getting some sort of physical exercise.

Have a look at my page: phen375 gnc

Hugh said...


Anonymous said...

Talking to a child increases narrative skills, logic, vocabulary. That comes from educated parents. My mom came to the US from Czechoslovakia with $20, three words of English, and a master's degree in engineering. We ate a lot of soup and wore hand-me-downs, AND we heard bedtime stories and were required to finish homework. My mom is thus quick to point out that poverty alone does not breed ignorance; Chinese students at University of Denver may live in a tiny apartment and without a car, but their kids acquire English and master academics quickly. Parents need educational resources and an understanding of what education needs. This is all HEAVILY tied to socio-economic status, but we can't forget the 'socio' component. I think that translates to teaching low-income kids about opportunity, a love of learning, an interest in higher education... all those things my mom knew about without the ability to string together a noun and verb in English.