Providence's High Tech Plan to Close the 'Word Gap'

City officials hope a small recording gadget will help boost the number of words low-income kids hear by the time they enter school.

by / March 26, 2014
Providence, R.I., Mayor Angel Taveras said he is thrilled the city is launching the "Providence Talks" program. AP/Stew Milne

The more parents talk, the more kids learn. It sounds obvious, but not until 1995 -- when Betty Hart and Todd Risley of the University of Kansas published the results of a multi-year study -- did we know just how important it is to talk to kids when they are very young. On average, young children in middle class and affluent families hear 30 million more words than children in low-income families. The disparity in words heard translates into a major learning gap for poor and working class children, which can continue through school and later in life.

In Providence, R.I., where one-third of children live in poverty and two-thirds of kindergartners enter school already behind on national school readiness benchmarks, the word gap is a big concern. That’s why Mayor Angel Taveras announced in February the launch of a unique intervention program called “Providence Talks,” which is designed to boost early childhood literacy and development.

The project, which was awarded a $5 million prize by the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge, will start with 75 volunteer families and is expected to grow to 500 families by the end of the year. By mid-2016, the city hopes to have as many as 2,000 families participating.

A key component of the project is the “word pedometer,” which counts words spoken by both the child and his or her parents. The miniature digital device stores up to one day’s worth of words heard by the child, including the child’s utterances, but can distinguish background noise and words, such as those uttered via TVs, radios and computers.  The device cannot playback what’s recorded, but the stored information is uploaded to a workstation where special software analyzes the words, conversations and other factors. The results of the analysis can be delivered electronically to social workers who visit the families, review the results with the parents and offers suggestions on how to better engage their children. A pilot study has shown that monthly meetings with parents could boost the number of words heard by a child by 55 percent.

The city is working with Brown University to evaluate the project’s progress and figure out how to make intervention more effective as the project grows. The city is also working with its own social service agencies, and is partnering with two Rhode Island-based nonprofit social service agencies to actually run the pilot program.

Mayor Taveras, who was raised by a single mother who spoke no English and attended Head Start programs in his early childhood, said he is thrilled the city is launching the learning intervention program. “My administration has been focused on improving educational outcomes from my first day in office," he said in a press release, "and Providence Talks will help us ensure that more of our young people enter a Providence classroom ready for success."

The technology behind the project was developed by the LENA Research Foundation, which spent six years and $40 million developing the software system behind the word pedometer. “The technology automates what Hart and Risley found out from their research,” said Stephen M. Hannon, president of the foundation.

Lena’s software toolkit has been used to assist with other types of early learning interventions, including the deaf and hard of hearing. “But the Providence project is our biggest project to date,” said Hannon. He described the system as a “feedback mechanism” -- it involves algorithms, benchmarks and a feedback program for the parents to use to engage their children.

“We’re using cognitive science to close the achievement gap,” he said, adding that for a long time, social science has been driving the research and programs aimed at improving the learning and development skills of young children. “But now, hard science has caught up and is beginning to make a difference."

Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology.

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