Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children
Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children

When do achievement gaps begin to take root? A new study from Stanford University found that by 18 months, “toddlers from disadvantaged families are already several months behind more advantaged children in language proficiency,” according to a Stanford News article. However, parents of all income levels can help close this gap, according to the study’s author.

Decades of research already pointed to early achievement gaps among children, including the well-known Hart-Risley study, which found that children from higher-income families hear and acquire more words than their lower income peers. By age three, children showed marked differences in their vocabularies.

Building on past efforts, the Stanford study, which was published in Developmental Science, “is the first to identify an ‘achievement gap’ in language processing skills at such a young age and could inform strategies to intervene and bring children up to speed,” the article continues.

Anne Fernald, a Stanford psychology professor, conducted the study. She started by assessing a convenient sample of 20 18-month-olds who were readily available because they lived near campus. She looked at “how quickly and accurately they identified objects based on simple verbal cues. Follow-up tests six months later measured how these skills developed,” the article explains.

Fernald wanted a broader, more diverse group of children in her research, so she “took her lab on the road. She duplicated the experimental setup of her Stanford-based lab in a 30-feet-long RV and drove to a city a few hours north of campus, where the median household income and education levels are much lower on average than in the Bay Area.”

The article continues: “The researchers recruited another 28 toddlers, aged roughly 18 months, from this lower SES [socio-economic status] population and performed the same experiments as they had on campus. Then they retested the children six months later when they turned two years old to see how they had progressed.”

The research pointed to achievement gaps that appeared at age 18-months. This finding, which builds on Hart and Risley’s research, is sure to have implications for birth-through-preschool early learning policies.

A Closer Look at how Children Acquire Words

“To understand the critical connections children make in language, picture a dog on a sofa,” Derrick Jackson wrote in his Boston Globe column about the Stanford study.

“If I say to you, ‘The doggie is on the sofa,’ and you know what a dog is, you don’t have to yet know what a sofa is,” Fernald told Jackson, adding, “You can use the familiar word to figure out the meaning of the new word. In a sense, you pick up the sofa in your vocabulary for free.

“If I just say, ‘Look at the dog,’ all you’re going to know about is the dog. But if I instead say, ‘Look, the dog has a big fluffy tail and is chasing the cat,’ you can begin to pick up the meaning of all kinds of other words and actions associated with the dog.”

Fernald suggests “that slower processing rates are partly responsible for slower vocabulary growth in the early years,” according to the Stanford News. “Toddlers learn new vocabulary from context, and the faster a child can get at the words she knows, the more able she is to attend to the next word in the sentence and to learn any new words that follow.”

“This link between early processing speed and language learning is supported by other results from Fernald’s research group,” the Stanford article explains. “In studies following both English- and Spanish-learning toddlers over several years, they found that children who are faster at recognizing familiar words at 18 months have larger vocabularies at age two years and score higher on standardized tests of language and cognition in kindergarten and elementary school.”

The discouraging news, Fernald told the Globe’s Jackson, “is that the trajectories don’t close.” Gaps in words and language skills persist.

The Implications of Language Gaps

“We should really get away from calling this a vocabulary gap. It’s a knowledge gap,” Catherine Snow, a Harvard Graduate School of Education professor, said to Jackson. “It isn’t going to be solved with flash cards. It’s about exposure. A school could pick a topic, say, coastal ecosystems, and children could learn to identify and pick up words that way.”

Language skills also affect reading, as the New York Times explained in its article about the Stanford study. “Since oral language and vocabulary are so connected to reading comprehension, the most disadvantaged children face increased challenges once they enter school and start learning to read.”

To close the gap, literacy experts “emphasize the importance of natural conversations with children, asking questions while reading books, and helping children identify words during playtime,” the New York Times article notes. Parents and early education and care programs can provide these language-rich experiences by following this simple guideline when interacting with young children.

As we know, the path to developing reading skills involves typical milestones: from babies imitating speech to toddlers looking at picture books to six-year-olds learning to read. Nonie Lesaux, a Harvard Graduate School of Education professor, explains this in the report “Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success.” And a graphic featured in the report shows specific steps that adults can take to build children’s language and reading skills by developing “a habit of talking and reading from birth to build up children’s knowledge.”

“It’s clear that SES is not destiny,” Fernald told the Stanford News. “The good news is that regardless of economic circumstances, parents who use more and richer language with their infants can help their child to learn more quickly.”

Used well, this kind of insightful research can help entire communities create high-quality, language-rich learning environments that help children thrive.