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Acquiring mastery over the use of language is a crucial milestone in every persons development. When a child masters language, she becomes capable of reliably communicating her needs and desires, socializing with others in meaningful ways, and absorbing complex notions about the world around her. Indeed, psychologist Lev Vygotsky has proclaimed language to be the most important learning tool that humans possess, a sentiment echoed by many others in his field (Spiegel 2011). However, while the innate capabilities that support the process of language acquisition are common to virtually all humans, the specific ways in which that process unfolds can differ greatly among individuals depending on the environment in which they are raised. In the early stages of development, this environment takes the form an "informal education system consisting of parents, other grown-ups, peers and even the media", all of which teaches children the basic skills necessary to learn language as well as language itself (Sigelman & Rider, 2009). In the following years, the mantle of language acquisition is taken up by a formal education system, which imparts more sophisticated language-related skills such as literacy, problem solving, and abstract thinking. Both formal and informal education play a large part in language acquisition, and studies have shown that when either one of these is compromised, language development as well as other cognitive faculties can suffer in dramatic and, in some cases, irreversible ways. In order to remedy this problem, known as the achievement gap, specific policy actions should be taken.
Before examining the causes of this achievement gap, it is necessary to understand the earliest stages of language acquisition, infancy and early childhood. Although infants are generally incapable of producing meaningful speech during the first 10 to 12 months of their lives, this period constitutes one of the most vital and active stages in all of language development. During this time, infants are listening to the speech being uttered in their presence, absorbing these words and sounds for use at a later point in their development. From an early age, infants have the ability to distinguish between phonemes, the building blocks of words. These are sounds like ââ‚¬Å“b, p, and t. Infants also display evidence that they understand word segmentation, and understand a sentence is not one long word, but a string of several words put together. They are sensitive to the intonation of language as well. This is the variations in pitch, speed and loudness used when we talk, so "before they ever speak a word, infants areââ‚¬Â¦ sensitive to the fact that speech falls between clauses, phrases, and words rather than in the middle of these important language units" (Sigelman & Rider, 2009). Infants are also cooing and babbling during this time, important practice for later meaningful speech. When parents respond to these pre-lingual sounds as if they were real words it relates positively to cognitive development of the infant by drawing him/her into a dialogue. An infantââ‚¬â„¢s first meaningful word is typically spoken around 12 months of age. Scientists refer to these first words as holophrases because "a single word often conveys an entire sentence's worth of meaning" (Sigelman & Rider, 2009).
In the beginning, language acquisition is a slower process, and words are gained one at a time. It may take 3 or 4 months before a child has a vocabulary of 10 or so words. However, this soon speeds up after about 18 months old and the rate of word learning doubles so that at 20 months they are producing an average of 150 words (Sigelman & Rider, 2009). At age 2 until about age 5 children learn to speak sentences that are more complex "by then end of the preschool period, children's sentences are much like those of adults even though they have never had a formal lesson in grammar" (Sigelman & Rider, 2009). Once children enter school their language acquisition and language skills greatly improve. Research has shown that "the average first-grader starts school with a vocabulary of 100,000 words and adds somewhere between 5 and 13 new words a day throughout the elementary school years" (Sigelman & Rider, 2009). If a child has any deficiencies in their vocabulary upon entering school they are already behind their peers. The child must lose valuable time, while other children are learning new words, just to catch up to the starting point of the other children. This can have profound effects on this child's intellectual development, because they are constantly playing catch up to other children. These differences in a child's vocabulary are not caused by race, gender or birth order. What actually seems to matter is the economic circumstances of the households in which the children are raised. Research by Hart and Risley has examined this phenomenon, called the achievement gap.
Hart and Risley began their research attempting to teach the underprivileged children at the preschool where Hart worked to speak like the children of her professors at the University of Kansas. They were of the idea if they could get the children to "speak with the fluency of their wealthier peers across town, they might go on similar academic achievements" (Spiegel 2011). They soon realized they could "easily increase the size of the children's vocabularies by teaching them new words" (Hart & Risley, 1995). However, these gains were not lasting, because they "could not accelerate the rate of vocabulary growth so that it would continue beyond direct teaching; we could not change the developmental trajectory." No matter the number of new words the children were taught at the preschool, a year later when they entered kindergarten," the effects of the boost in vocabulary resources [were] washed out" (Hart & Risley, 1995).
These results were discouraging, and this prompted Hart and Risely to ask, "If age 4 was too late, then when was early enough?" (Spiegel 2011). The researchers were determined to understand how and when the differences in language development actually started in these children. Feeling like they needed to see "what was happening to children at home at the very beginning on their vocabulary growth", Hart and Risley began sending observers with recorders to participating homes to record "every utterance" every month for three years (Hart & Risley, 1995). After collecting all of this data, it took researchers 10 years to transcribe and analyze the tapes. The data produced was remarkable, and showed over the course of four years "an average child in a professional family would have accumulated experience with almost 45 million words, an average child in a working-class family would have accumulated experience with 26 million words, and an average child in a welfare family would have accumulated experience with 13 million words" (Hart & Risley, 1995). Thus "by age 4, the average child in a welfare family might have 13 million fewer words of cumulative experience than the average child in a working-class family" (Hart & Risley, 1995). According to Hart, the finding that struck most people was not about the "quality of the speech-how often rich versus poor parents asked questions or positively affirmed their children-but about the quantity" (Spiegel 2011). By the time children of professional parents reach preschool there is about a 35 million-word gap in the poorer children's vocabularies.
These results demonstrate why underprivileged children often have a hard time achieving at the same levels as their privileged peers. By the time these children enter school, they are already behind because they are not getting the same experience with language input. The question that many child development professionals have asked themselves since the publication of Hart and Risley's findings is what can be done to close this achievement gap. One of the ideas they have came up with is "find[ing] a way to teach poor parents how to talk to their babies like rich parents" (Spiegel 2011). Alan Mendelsohn, a associate professor of pediatrics, has developed such a class to teach these skills to welfare parents. Mendelsohn's program works by giving "poor" mothers coaching sessions with specialist during pediatrician visits. Each of these 15 minute sessions are video taped, the goal is to film the parents "playing with their babies and then advise them on how [they] can improve" their skills interacting with their infants (Spiegel 2011). After receiving the training Mendelsohn reported that there was a "50 percent increase in the degree to which [the parents] talked about events in the child's life" with the child (Spiegel 2011). The study also found after training, the mother read to their children more and showed their babies less television (Spiegel 2011). Another way to reduce the achievement gap is through providing disadvantaged children with early childhood education; Head Start is an example of such a program. According to research, "disadvantaged children who attend programs specifically designed to prepare them for school experience more cognitive growth and achieve more success in school than [disadvantaged] children who do not attend such programs" (Sigelman & Rider, 2009). The achievement gap might also be closed through financial support provided to these mothers, similar to welfare. It can be very hard for lower class parents to find time to interact with their children if they are having to work all day to support their family. A solution to this problem might be to provide financial support to these parents so one of them would be able to work a part-time job. This would give these parents more time to interact with their children, with out devastating their finances. When the children are able to enter preschool programs then the assistance could end and the parent could return to full time employment.
Both formal and informal education play key roles in a child's language development. Often, the children of underprivileged families experience deficiencies in their informal education, putting them behind their privileged peers when they enter kindergarten. Though this achievement gap has its greatest effects in language acquisition, its impact is not limited to that area, for a delay in the development of language can have cascading effects on other fields of cognitive development such as mathematical skills or abstract reasoning. It is for these reasons that support programs such as Head Start and other efforts to educate underprivileged parents and their children are vital elements in the project of public education in this country.