Child(ish) Reads: Thirty Million Words

This book appeared on my radar earlier this year. Author Dana Suskind, M.D. just came out with a new title, Parent Nation: Unlocking Every Child’s Potential, Fulfilling Society’s Promise, and this was one of her previous books listed in her bio. Thirty Million Words was available from my library, so I gave it a try on a work trip in April.

Suskind begins by sharing the stories of two former clients; two toddlers, born deaf, who needed cochlear implants. One child had proactive parents who learned ASL, read and conversed with their child frequently, and over a year or so, their kid was able to speak and read with age-typical proficiency.

The second child’s parents were not as vigilant. There was not as much interactive conversation, the child was not often around their peers or other adults, and was treated like they were lacking. By the time the second child reached school age, they were still very behind despite their parents thinking that the hearing implant alone would solve their problem.

Of course, there are socioeconomic, racial and location differences in these stories, but Suskind continued her research to find out why there was such a difference in achievement when both of these kids had the same potential.

Personally, I was crying on the airplane reading this section of the book. It gave some really eye-opening statistics on the deaf community and showed how closely hearing, speaking, and reading are all connected. I almost didn’t want to write anything. Instead, I just wanted to show you everything I highlighted on the e-Book (which are all at the end of this post).

So here are my big takeaways from Thirty Million Words:

  1. All children are born with a certain level of “potential” genetically. This cannot be increased. However, their nurturing and environment can subject them to things that can decrease this potential.

I think this really speaks to our OT-forward philosophy. Kids are born with their own physical, mental, and social capacity. But if something in their environment or experience presents an obstacle to reaching that capacity, then it is up to the caregivers to assist. The Development Milestones are a good example of this.

Early exposure to stress and cortisol as a baby will permanently change the brains structure. “Epigenetics, the process by which genetics are altered by environmental influences, demonstrates that nurture may not be able to improve nature, but it can harm it.

2. Thirty Million Words” refers to the study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley (1995). This found that in households that did not have verbally-active parents, children heard 30 million less words by their third birthday, compared to households with more engaged parents.

“The children who heard more words were better prepared when they entered school. These same kids, when followed into third grade, had bigger vocabularies, were stronger readers, and got higher test scores. The bottom line: the kids who started out ahead, stayed ahead; the kids who started out behind, stayed behind. This disparity in learning is referred to as the achievement gap.”

Moral of the story for parents of young children: Get talking.
This isn’t to say that it’s easy. Parents who work shifts, single parents, lower-income families all have serious on demands on their time, and sometimes they can’t put in the same amount of face-time and conversation with their children.

3. How we talk to our kids matters just as much as the number of words or vocabulary exposure.
One time in a yoga class, my instructor shared that adults have about 60-80 thousand thoughts per day. On average, 80% of those thoughts are negative. What does this do to our sense of self?

The same goes with your kids. If the majority of the words you use when you talk to them are negative, critical, condescending, etc., this will not only hinder their ability to speak due to stress, but it will also change their brain structure.

“Children in poorer families heard more than double the amount of negative remarks per hour than children from professional families. And this difference was compounded by the difference in the total number of words children heard. Because they heard far fewer words in total, the ratio of prohibitive, negative words to positive, supportive words was much higher for children in lower socioeconomic status families.”

“An emotional, toxically stressed early environment that includes, but is not limited to, negative and volatile parent talk, adversely affects the development of the prefrontal cortex, stunting self-regulation and executive function, eventually compromising the ability of the child, and eventually the adult, to deal with the stresses of life.”

“Referring to the number of words a parent speaks to a child and the way in which a parent speaks to a child, parent language influences our ability to reach our potentials in math, spatial reasoning, and literacy, our ability to regulate our behavior, our reaction to stress, our perseverance and even our moral fiber. It is also an essential catalyst in determining the strength and permanence of certain neuronal wirings and the pruning away of others.”

4. Why is the age of three so important? Pruning!

We’ve talked about brain pruning in previous posts. This is when the brain undergoes a decluttering process. If certain information or skills are not used or deemed important, the brain will just snip it off.

Similarly, if neurons in a child’s brain are not being actively stimulated, they get pruned as well. This can explain why if certain skills or abilities are not practiced or learned by a certain time, it is considerably harder to pick them up at a later age. Similar to trying to learn a language as an adult versus early second-language exposure as a kid. If words and reading connections aren’t made early on, it becomes harder for that child to learn to read compared to their peers. This is also what happened with the second child in Suskind’s introduction.

The book is separated into three sections: Research, The Thirty Million Words Project, and Parent Applications.

Most of the things I loved, including all of the pull quotes, were in the first section. The second part talks about the formation of the Project and is pretty much a long editorial about the Project’s success. The third part is what parents can do at home to apply the TMW approach.

The second and third parts of the book are a bit repetitive with the conversation and literacy concepts, and I reverted to just skimming it. I liked this book, but would save it for a library rental or borrow it from a friend.

And as promised, here are all of my highlights from the reading:

“The ability to hear has an impact on the ability to read and, in consequence, to learn. The domino effect, over a lifetime, is evident. In studies done on adults born deaf and educated solely with sign language, the average literacy level in the past was fourth grade; one-third of deaf adults are functionally illiterate.”

“The reading level in third grade generally predicts the ultimate learning trajectory for all children.”

“Only now are we beginning to understand that, in addition to the food necessary for physical growth, there is an equivalent need for optimum social nutrition to ensure intellectual growth. And both needs are absolutely caregiver dependent.”

“According to James Heckman, an important determinant of a child’s academic success is self-regulation and executive function. Without self-regulation and executive function, there is little chance of achievement in children or, for that matter, in any of us. Ensuring that all children achieve those strengths makes investment in early childhood an important priority.”

“Another name [for self-regulation] is ‘inhibitory control,’ that is, inhibiting our ‘natural’ responses when they are negative or intensify a problem.”

“Children with delayed language, whether due to hearing loss, lack of adequate language input, or delayed speech for other reasons, have a higher incidence of problems related to self-regulation.”

“Private speech among preschool children, also known as “self-talk,” is actually predictive of greater social skills and fewer behavioral problems. Teachers rated these children higher for self-regulation.”

“In the recent science exploring the pros of speaking more than one language, some studies have found that children who speak a second language have enhanced self-regulation and executive function.”

“As adults when we’re asked to switch directions to a different assignment, we automatically shift focus from what we’re doing, even if it’s what we’d like to be doing, to the task at hand. That’s what makes us responsible adults. Children, however, whose executive function is still underdeveloped, stay focused only when they find an activity interesting. If there is no interest, then words, even the words of a really good story, float into the air, having little or no effect on that child’s brain development. The effect is on retention of vocabulary, as well. Studies have shown us that when a child has to participate in an activity in which he or she has little or no interest, the child is less likely to learn the words being used.”

“A growing body of research confirms that a newborn whose cries are left unattended suffers ‘toxic’ stress. If this continues over time, that child’s brain connections are permanently, negatively impacted. The result is a child who grows up with more difficulty learning, controlling emotions and behavior, and trusting others. These children also grow up more prone to problems such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and autoimmune disorders.”

“When a parent points to the words as they’re read, a toddler begins to understand that there is a connection between the word being spoken and the specific lines on the page. This also shows the child the language-specific procedure for reading, in English, for example, left to right, top to bottom, and that individual words are separated by spaces and punctuation.”

“Directives and short commands are the least efficient method for brain building because they require little or no language in response.”

“A parent’s most important goal: a stable child who is able to meet life’s challenges constructively and intelligently.”

“To equalize the playing field, governments need to invest in parents so parents can better invest in their children.”

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