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The Power of Conversation with Children: Education is Social Justice

July 31st, 2013 | Posted by David Whitfield in Educational Justice

For Schools in general and Parents in Particular
Why is it that some children hear only 600 or fewer words per hour from their parents? And what are the academic and developmental consequences of hearing such few words per hour? If you don’t know the power of conversation with your children, then perhaps you should look at your parenting skills. And as the saying goes, “Having children makes you about as much a parents as having a piano in your home makes you a pianist.” Now that may sound a bit harsh. But some parents just don’t talk to their children for whatever reason.
While sitting in a restaurant one morning having breakfast with my friend, we noted a father and son sitting face-to-face, having breakfast. The son struggled with his knife, fork, and food, trying to get scrambled eggs into his mouth. Meanwhile, the father was busily working his Smart-Phone or some media gadget. This behavior continued for some 30 minutes without a word said to the son. As I left the restaurant, I stopped by their table briefly to say hello and see how old the son was. “He’s four,” the father said proudly. That little four-year-old boy didn’t hear a single word from his father for one-half hour. Why is that important?
In their research report, titled, “The Power of Talk (2nd ed.): Impact of Adult Talk… During the Critical 0-4 Years of Child Development,” Gilkerson and Richards, used three categories of children in their research as follows: they found that Children of welfare families hear 600 words per hour; children from middle class families hear 1,200 words per hour; and children of professional families hear some 2,300 words per hours. Gilkerson and Richards also found that by the time children of welfare families reach the age of 3, they will not have heard some 3,000,000 words; that’s million, in comparison to children of professional families. What does that portend for children from welfare families regarding school readiness, academic achievement, and development?
Being a child of the 600-word-per-hour group, I can attest to the consequences of hearing such few words per hour during my early childhood. As an adult I have not recovered and never will—it’s a life-long struggle with language, concepts, writing, and reading comprehension. As a teen and as a soldier, I was relentlessly teased by others for reading the dictionary for hours trying to improve my vocabulary. It all started from birth.
On a cotton plantation, where I was born, more often than not, we sharecroppers heard fewer than 100 words per hour; and for the most part, those 100 or fewer words were not fun to hear; and that’s because they were punishing: “You better get to work!” Or, “If you don’t hurry up, you’re going to get a beating!” Often the words were not for public consumption; they were vile, profane, and disturbing. Example: “Since you didn’t get it done, your ass belongs to me tonight after you go to sleep!” Such comments had a devastating psychological effect on a child, especially after working 10 or more hours in 90-degree heat; and now the child is too scared to go to sleep, but too tired not to.
When children hear such few words per hour, especially punishing words from their parents for several years, they are not nearly as ready for school as their peers of middle-class or professional families. Simply put, they are not ready to learn. And the worst of it is that most teachers, perhaps all, are not prepared, trained, or skilled in teaching children who have not heard those 3,000,000 words versus those who have. To exacerbate this situation, because of educational assumptions we often make, in many instances, children are misdiagnosed, mislabeled, misplaced, and mistreated. And they have little or nothing to do with their plight.
So, how can we as citizens, parents, community and schools leaders, church officials, Head Start staff and faculty help these children? How can we stay open to what is true for many children, respectfully meet them where they are, and ensure we do not leave them there?
Or, said differently, how do we contribute to the literacy of our nation’s children, in ways that will help them learn, develop, and experience educational justice?
What are your thoughts?
Reference used in this blog: Gilkerson, J. & Richards, J. A. (2009). The power of talk (2nd Ed.): Impact of adult talk, conversational turns, and TV during the critical 0-4 years of child development.

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2 Responses

  • Tracy Flynn says:

    My partner and I recently adopted his 4-year-old grandson, the child of two drug addicts who clearly heard less than 600 words-per-hour during his first three years. He was silent when he first came to us eight months ago, but now has so much to share that we sometimes wish we could find an “off” button. We have constant dialogue during his waking hours, and he is eager to share his every observation of life. We have a long road of recovery ahead to make up for his first three years; I can only imagine the struggle involved for individuals who grow up under 18 years of such circumstances.

    • Tracy,
      I thank you very much for your response! It sounds like your 4-year-old is hungry for attention, conversation, interaction. And since he is engaging rather than remaining silent, perhaps he feels comfortable communicating with you; that is so very encouraging. Though I am not a child psychologist, I helped raise four sons. I sincerely wish you and your partner the very, very best; and that the 4-year-old’s behavior will reduce his struggle in the years to come.
      Thank you and have a joyful rest of summer!

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