The Honor’s Colloquium conversation with Angel Taveras on aesthetics and education has been canceled because Mayor Taveras will not be attending. We deeply regret that the event will not take place.
This week on the Beauty Salon, we’ve been taking a look at the research and educational programs surrounding early childhood language environments and the acquisition of language. Part one gave a brief summary of the work of Betty Hart and Todd Risley. Part two described current efforts to enrich child language environments.
In the third installment of our series on language and education, let’s see how our speaking and the aesthetic experience of the world are connected. In a nutshell, language unlocks experience, and experience unlocks language. Educators interested in closing the word gap are beginning to ask how to entwine a child’s earliest engagements of speaking and the world. These experiences flow through the senses.
Think about how specialized vocabularies give us specialized ways of seeing a situation. If I popped the hood of my car and looked in, here is what I would see:
The point? I look under the hood of a car and see total mystery and chaos and am left to wonder whatever happened to the mouse (I hope it’s ok). A mechanic would see something entirely different—the parts and their relation, their make and condition, even what seems to be lost, missing or wrong. A build-up of grease or a faint acrid smell tells the mechanic a story. Is the burning smell burning fluid or plastic? Is the sound a whine, a creak or a grunt? The high, long whine: a slipped belt dragging against a hard surface. The low, grinding creak: friction in a joint. The heaving grunt: a slower release of the breaks against the wheels. The mechanic’s specialized vocabulary and aesthetic vocabulary work together to help the mechanic to assess and judge the situation based on sight, smell, touch, hearing and I bet on a few very gross occasions, taste. What one perceives always tells a story. The more you pay attention, the more the perception tells a story—and in the other direction, the more you pay attention to how perception tells a story, the more you see.
When considering the importance of vocabulary, don’t think of words as labels. We don’t want to close the word gap because the more words you have, the more things you can label: if that were the case, all it would take to become all-knowing is to memorize a dictionary. Life is harder than that. The mechanic can look under the hood and label parts according to a schematic, but the good mechanic sees how the parts are telling a story with an aesthetic vocabulary.
Well, where did this vocabulary come from? It comes from where all language comes from—navigating a world together, with one another. It first comes from a curiosity and then a care about the world that then engages with the world and makes it new. Let me illustrate with an example based on a story one of my public speaking students told years ago. She explained to the class that, while she might seem like an unlikely gearhead, her love of mechanics began when she followed her eldest brother around the garage while he worked on cars. She idolized him, and he would patiently answer all her questions. Over time, she began to help him, and today they still work on cars together.
Think about how our young mechanic found what she loved and learned its aesthetic vocabulary. First, she just wanted to spend time with her brother. Soon her attention turns to what he is doing, and she begins to ask questions. What’s that? What’s this? What are you doing? Children first acquire language by asking “what?” As they attend to what is happening, children then want to know why something is happening. What are you doing? gets followed immediately by why as children begin to work out reasoning and relationships between things. Slowly our young mechanic is learning how the parts of the engine relate, what they do and how it makes the car move. A new wrinkle—as our mechanic learns the whats, whys and wherefores, she now begins to ask how questions. How puts the questioner into activity. What is being done and why have been answered; now we can begin to learn how to do the thing ourselves. Over time, our mechanic begins to take on more and more tasks as she learns how they are done. But she now knows enough to tell when she isn’t sure what to do, or which available option to take. She now asks whether she should do one thing or another, weighing likelihood and benefits versus disadvantages. Finally, experienced in making, our mechanic wants to go beyond what she knows and what she can do. She asks, coming into her own as a creator, what if….why not…? She begins to exercise her imagination, but tempers it with her practical experience. She can see in the world not just what it is but what it could become and is not yet.
Note that these experiences, and the deepening vocabularies that arise from them, rely on others. If my student hadn’t had such a kind and loving older brother, and he hadn’t been as eager not just to entertain but to teach his baby sister, she wouldn’t have had such a rich experience or become such a skilled mechanic. Thus programs designed to address the word gap are emphasizing not simply using a lot of words around children (the memorize-a-dictionary approach to knowledge) but how to answer a child’s questions about what and why in interesting ways that make the child think and imagine. It may be the case that a word gap in and of itself is not the problem, but rather that the gap is an indication or sign that the child is living in a world where enriching conversations (be that in the home, in school, or in other parts of a child’s particular world) are not taking place. The good news is that one can enrich a child’s world, where ever that world is, by engaging in conversation with them, and helping them to move from what to why to how to whether to what if…and why not…?
Earlier in the series
On Thursday, we looked at the work of Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley. In the wake of Hart and Risley’s research on early childhood experience, language acquisition and the word gap, education specialists and philanthropists have begun to design programs that enrich child language environments in order to close the gap between rich and poor.
In their initial research, Hart and Risley had to listen to tens of thousands of hours of recordings from study participant homes to estimate the frequency of talk, sheer number of words and type of talk directed towards children. Hart and Risley refer to this space and time of talk surrounding and directed toward children a “language environment.” Think of it as a child’s word-world. Today, recording and analysis technology is making such analysis far easier. The LENA (Language ENvironment Analysis) system, for example, is a small digital recording device that can be clipped on to a child’s clothing. The accompanying LENA software then does the recognition and coding grunt-work by automatically processing and categorizing the talk captured by the small digital recorder.
Education initiatives are beginning to use the LENA system to both observe and draw conclusions from the recorded data, allowing specialists to work with parents to improve their child’s language environment. Recently, the Clinton Foundation, lead by Former Secretary of State and Senator Hillary Clinton, launched the “Too Small to Fail” program. “Too Small to Fail” is dedicated to early childhood development, including closing the word gap. As part of their efforts, “Too Small to Fail” recommends constant language interaction with children, even before they begin speaking. Talk to your baby or young child all the time: tell stories, narrate the day, read and sing.
Here in Rhode Island, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras has announced the first city-wide program aimed at closing the word gap—
and the program, “Providence Talks” will be the focus of our interview with Mayor Taveras, Tuesday Dec. 3 at 7:30pm, University of Rhode Island Edwards Auditorium [note, Dec. 3 2013: because Mayor Taveras pulled out of the event at the last moment, the Honor’s Colloquium has been canceled. We are, of course, deeply disappointed].
Recently, the Casey Foundation highlighted the many efforts Providence has undertaken to improve grade-level reading. Providence has a history of creating innovative educational initiatives to enhance student learning, and Mayor Taveras has made education a high priority in his administration. Mayor Taveras consistently emphasizes the crucial role of public education in his own success, starting with his time in Head Start to the celebrating the teacher who encouraged him to become a lawyer, and has even written a children’s book How to Do Well in School, which you can read here. Nationally, Mayor Taveras is the U. S. Conference of Mayors’ vice-chair for grade-level reading. From Race to the Top federal funding awards, to non-profit initiatives like the Casey Foundation Evidence2Success program and Ready to Learn Providence, that trains childcare providers in education and teaching techniques, the city of Providence is leading the way in the nation for supporting academic success.
The “Providence Talks” program expands educational support to those crucial pre-school years that, as Hart and Risley’s research has shown, create the foundation on which all subsequent learning and engagement with the world is based. Recall that Hart and Risley first began studying children from 7-9 months old until three-years-old because their previous experience had shown that later educational interventions were not closing income-based achievement gaps. The “Providence Talks” program, then, targets precisely those key first years where a child is acquiring their initial language skills. “Providence Talks,” which recently received a 5.5 million dollar grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayor’s Challenge, builds on Hart and Risley’s approach, which used observation and recording technology to assess a child’s language environment and then provide education and support for participating parents. “Providence Talks” aims to enroll families in a program that provides LENA recorders, and that then provides consultations, strategies and services for parents based on the particular recorded findings from the system for their child, to help parents enrich their child’s language environments.
You can read more about the Providence Talks program, and its roots in larger academic studies of child vocabulary in Ben Zimmer’s March 2013 Boston Globe article “Providence’s $5 million plan to shrink the word gap.”
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