Research has increasingly shown that many children from low-income homes arrive at school with weaker language skills than their more affluent peers, and that early gaps in literacy are difficult to close and frequently predict lower academic outcomes as students progress through school. Recognition of the importance of early literacy has fueled the push for government funded pre-K programs for 4-year olds, but new research has identified gaps in children’s language processing skills as early as 18-months and suggests that to be effective, intervention must begin much earlier and include parents and caregivers.

Programs such as the Thirty Million Words Initiative, Too Small to Fail, Zero to Three, and Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors, work with parents, communities, and schools to help ensure all children arrive at school with the vocabulary and skills needed to be successful. While there are variations in each program’s approach, most focus on increasing the amount of time parents and caregivers speak to children and provide a home-based early literacy curriculum to help to parents understand the importance of talking to their young children and to develop strategies for building vocabulary and literacy skills.

The New York Times recently reported on new programs, such as Providence Talks, that are using technology to provide feedback and support to low-income parents in developing early literacy skills. Such programs provide families with a small recording device that may be attached to a toddler’s clothing. The device records the words the child hears and detects instances when parents listen and respond to their child’s verbal utterances.  Software analyzes the data, identifying the number of words children hear each day, and program volunteers conduct home visits to help parents make sense of the results. Volunteers coach parents on how to communicate more effectively with their children and identify opportunities to teach language skills.  Devices include safeguards to ensure that family privacy is protected (e.g., actual conversations are not recorded).  You can watch a video demonstrating the device here.

Researchers highlight the value of data collected through such programs, explaining that recordings will help them understand whether the information and coaching provided to parents improves children’s vocabulary acquisition in the short term and whether academic outcomes improve in the long term.