Early Experiences Key to School Success

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Language Learning in Babies and Toddlers: An Interview with Claire Lerner
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Iyanna and Vicky Polito: (Iyanna babbling, throwing balls into a box, as Vicky says) That's a purple one. Blue.

It's about 9:30 on a chilly Thursday morning, and two-year-old Iyanna is on her living room floor, tossing little colored balls into a large plastic tote.

Iyanna and Vicky Polito: (Iyanna still babbling, as Vicky says) And now orange ball. Ohhhhh, there it goes.

Vicky Polito is executive director of Cleveland's Parent-Child Home Program, which serves about three dozen low-income families with kids ranging in age from 18 months to four years. Polito's here to read with Iyanna and her three-year-old brother Danny. But Danny is off getting a toy, and Iyanna doesn't want to read right now, so Polito brings language to bear on what Iyanna is doing. Polito says that's just fine.

Vicky Polito: As long as we're having verbal interaction with the child; that's perfect. You know, if they bring us a truck we can still talk about, "Oh, look at the red truck."

The Parent-Child Home Program is based on the idea that children's earliest learning experiences have an enormous impact on their later educational success. Child development specialist Claire Lerner says good evidence supports that notion. Lerner is co-director of parent education at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit that aims to focus public attention - and public policy - on the needs of babies and toddlers. She says that effort has been an uphill battle.

Claire Lerner: There still has been not nearly the amount of recognition of the importance of these kinds of programs, and initiatives, and support for infants and toddlers and their families, even though we know that language development starts at Day 1.

Lerner acknowledges it may be difficult to recognize the importance of providing what she calls a language-rich environment for babies and toddlers, because they generally can't yet respond in kind. Still, she says, how kids experience language at those ages sets the foundation for all the learning that follows.

Claire Lerner: A child's language skills are intimately tied to their cognition, to how they develop their ideas, the ability to be heard and understand, to make a connection and a relationship with another person. And that doesn't just start when they have language. It starts when they're babies, and they make a sound and somebody responds.

But there's a vast range in how (and how much) parents speak with their kids, according to recent studies. In the Spring 2003 issue of American Educator, researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley wrote that young children in low-income families have heard 30 million fewer words than their counterparts in higher-income families. Looking at the same children in 3rd grade, Hart and Risley found the linguistic gap had persisted.

It's that gap that the Parent Child Home Program aims to close. Its stated mission is to boost poor children's chances of doing well in school by stimulating parent-child verbal interaction. There are 138 PCHPs across the U.S. Locally, the program has been run by Catholic Charities for the past two years.

On one of her twice-a-week home visits, PCHP director Vicky Poledo brings Danny and Iyanna a book.

Vicky Polito and Danny: (Would you like to look at this one?) What's that? (It's called The Mitten. Yeah, do you want to see this one?) Let me read it (You read it, absolutely).

Danny and Iyanna's mom, Falon Connell says when Danny got started in the two-year program last year, he just wanted to run around during home visits. But today, as soon as Polito arrives, he carries his half-eaten bowl of cereal into the living room and sits down to read. The PCHP, she says, has made a real difference.

Falon Connell: Most kids, they will pick up the book, and they'll look at the pictures, but Danny, he'll try to read it, and you know we'll try and do it together.

Already, his reading has improved and his vocabulary has grown, Connell says, and he loves when Polito - Miss Vicky to him - comes to visit. She says Danny talks about Miss Vicky all the time, frequently referring to her as his teacher. But Polito is quick to interject that she isn't Danny's teacher. Connell is. Her job, Polito says, is to model for parents ways they can encourage strong language development in their kids. Some parents disappear when she's there, Polito says. And she has no idea whether they do any reading when she's not. But Falon Connell is clearly applying Polito's lessons.

Falon Connell and Danny: Look how everybody flew out the mitten danny. (What) You see that? Everybody just flew out.

How Danny and Iyanna will do years from now in school can't be predicted. What's clear is that, right now, they're getting quality time with their Mom, who's on the floor with them, reading, laughing, talking, and playing.

Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, 90.3.

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