Word Health: Addressing the Word Gap as a Public Health Crisis

Over the past twenty years, scientists and researchers have built the case that the earliest moments of a child’s life offer a unique opportunity to shape her future. The brains of infants and toddlers develop at an incredible rate, forming the foundation for lifelong learning and health. The stimulation that children receive in these early years powerfully influence not only their academic and material success, but also – critically – their physical and mental health as well. An emerging body of research links poor health outcomes and chronic illness to unmet social and environmental factors, as well as to adverse childhood experiences.

While higher-income families seem to be reaping the benefits of this brain research and boosting their children’s advantage, families with fewer resources and less education are not. There is a gap in knowledge and understanding about the power of language-rich interactions – such as talking, reading, and singing – with infants and toddlers that has long-term implications for children, and society at large. Decades of research, including studies that have been replicated and deepened in recent years, demonstrate that there are important disparities in the language exposure of young children. These disparities are predictors of children’s development, success in school and even long-term health outcomes.

Taken together, the brain research coupled with these disparities suggest a public crisis related to the early development of young children, which impacts not only those children and families, but also the promise of social mobility, equality, health, and economic future of our country.

One tangible, feasible, and actionable strategy is to address the “word gap,” or the difference in both the number of words and the quality of conversation heard by low-income children as compared to children in higher income households.

This paper provides a framework to consider early childhood development broadly, and the word gap specifically, as not only a school readiness issue, but as a public health issue and the topic of a public health campaign. Like efforts to put babies on their backs to sleep and to reduce tobacco use, this paper argues that we need to combine media and action campaigns aimed at changing personal behavior with changes in public policy to support the broader ecosystem for parents and caregivers. Through a widely targeted and thoughtful campaign, individuals and the public and private sectors will come to understand the problem and help to raise awareness, which will lead to more families and caregivers talking, reading and singing with young children, and ultimately improving children’s health and educational outcomes for all children.

Too Small to Fail has issued a Community Campaign Guide, which walks local leaders through the steps of creating a word gap campaign, or enhancing a current campaign with word gap messaging. Those interested in building a local word gap campaign should review that guide, as well.