In 2006, the LENA Research Foundation developed LENA, which stands for Language ENvironment Analysis, a far more advanced technology than that employed by Hart and Risley, for determining the number and relevance of words spoken to a child in babyhood and the child's subsequent learning ability.
The LENA Research Foundation verified what Hart and Risley had uncovered: that children who hear more words from birth to age 3 have more sophisticated language skills than children who don't hear as many words. In other words, talk is the greatest tool parents can use to develop their child's intellectual skills.
LENA developed technology to determine the number of words spoken: a voice recorder inserted in a special pocket in the baby's clothing that can unobtrusively record 16 continuous hours. With speech-recognition software it can count and source words uttered, count conversational turns (one party says something and the other responds) and weed out background noise and TV.
New research from Stanford psychologist Anne Fernald has confirmed that the number of words spoken by parents to their toddler can make an incredible difference in the child's language proficiency and vocabulary. As one observer put it, "Just as young children need nourishing food to build physical strength, they also need linguistic nutrition for optimal development of language and cognitive abilities."
Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation have embarked upon a program called the "word gap," which is designed to increase the number of words spoken to a child in infancy. As Clinton put it, "Coming to school without words is like coming to school without food or adequate health care. It makes it harder for kids to develop their creativity and imagination, to learn, excel, and live up to their full potential. It should spur us to action just like child hunger and child poverty."
Perhaps it is time to advance our thinking about learning and education starting with two new classifications: "Age-Differentiated Learning" and "Age-Undifferentiated Learning."
Age-Differentiated Learning would, as the name implies, differentiate learning according to the age of the child and would consist of three categories: Babyhood (birth-3), Kindergarten Four (K-4) (as opposed to Pre-K), and Kindergarten Five (K-5).
Age-Undifferentiated Learning would, as the name implies, not differentiate learning according to the age of the child, such as into grades (1-12), the undifferentiation made possible by moving from time-constrained learning to student-centric learning through use of technology.
Improvements in an infant's learning to learn through the power of parent "talk" may be a viable solution to the most intractable problem in the public-school system -- keeping children disadvantaged in learning ability from falling even further behind and ultimately dropping out of school.
McElwee is a Charleston lawyer with the firm Robinson & McElwee PLLC.