What is the power of the Vocab Trajectory? It compresses all the huge complexity of all the interactions and gives us one measure that tells us in the right time frame where we are and what more we need to do.
When they were building the Confederation Bridge, the project manager and the funders demanded a set of measurements that would enable them to see if they had the full complexity of the project in hand and to let them know if they were on track to complete on time. They had the same problem as we do in measuring the impact of many complex factors and interactions on the Early Years. They chose one measure. The Foot Poured of Concrete per Day. Why? Because to pour a foot of concrete, everything prior to that had to have been completed. The full complexity of all the hundreds of interrelated steps had to have been pulled off well. Foot poured would also give the engineers and funders a clear view of the trajectory of the work. They could still change elements in the mix to get them back on track. This is the power of the Vocab measure.
What do we know about the key elements that give a high score on vocab at age 2? We know that it is largely determined by three factors. The most important is the number of words heard in conversation by the infant. The second is how much the infant was touched. The last was the quality of the interaction between the parent and the infant.
Hart and Risley - Meaningful Differences in the Every Day Experience of Young American Children has explored the words and culture aspect of this driver. Here is the core finding. The brain and outlook of infants is moulded by the experience of language itself. Like any moulding experience cumulative experience counts.
The amount of words heard and the Impact on the Brain and Consciousness
By 4 the children in the Professional Family group had heard an accumulation of 50 million words. The Welfare family children had heard only about 10 million. A 40 million word difference! By 4, the language pathway has almost closed and while a child that has heard only 10 million words can speak, it lives mainly in an instrumental world. Its ability to perceive the symbolic world, which is now the core of our society, is very small and the opportunity to add back 40 million words is not possible. Many 4 year olds from a high talk family have a wider vocab than the parents of the welfare child! The last meaningful time to intervene is at 2. The best time to intervene is at birth.
Of all the developmental factors, H & R and Wilms feel that the amount of language heard in conversation is the single most important driver for opening learning pathways. I emphasize in conversation. The context for hearing is relationship. Humans connect with each other in two ways by touch and by conversation. Dunbar makes the case that language development itself was an extension of primate grooming over distance. Babies do not hear TV, they hear their mothers in a dance of intimacy.
There are some qualitative issue as well.
There is a very large cultural gap embedded in vocab which is the nature of the discourse. Wilms's research is clear. That Authoritative family culture - nice but firm is the most effective. This slide shows the significant difference between cultures in the positive aspects of discourse.
Families in an instrumental world tend to focus language on the does and don'ts - mainly on the don'ts with little or no context or interaction. They "see" their children as objects or instruments to be cleaned, fed and controlled. They themselves are often objects in the workplace whose destiny and welfare is objectively "managed" by a larger parental figure such as a boss or the government. No one consults them or asks their opinion. They are not trusted and have no public power.
Recent tragedies such as Columbine have been centred in middle class settings. What is going on there? Many middle class parents both working full time are exhausted and feel guilt. While they have the symbolic verbal skills, they have lost the energy to form strong attachments. They too may have been captured by the instrumental world of a bureaucracy. They have become objects as well and risk being "corporate" at home which then becomes a task centred culture. They may react to their circumstances by being very permissive and not providing enough structure. They may have a nanny from the developing world who will seek the easy life and be permissive or be inattentive and allow TV to be the primary interactive agent. The nanny may herself come from an instrumental culture where the instrumental aspect of care overshadows the emotional and connective aspects of the underlying relationship and the need for conversation.
The issue of development in the early years at its deepest level appears to be framed in terms of the parent child relationship which is in turn framed by the culture of the parent. We pass on our culture to our children when they are most impressionable - when they are new born and until the age of 3-4.
In the context of the trajectory and words, touch and culture, what might be the big 3 items that would empower parents to ensure that their children have the best potential to learn and grow though life?
1. The power of having lots of the optimal conversation with our infants which includes lots of reading
2. The power of high touch especially in the first 6 months of life - which includes breast feeding and lots of reading
3. The Power of seeing these two pathways in the context of a deep attachment with the child where the parent develops an authoritative family culture for the family
How then could we help all parents obtain this insight and how could we help them obtain the skills?
We are recommending that we design and build a network system of knowledge that supports each family in a way that suits the unique needs of each family best. How might we do this?
See Building the Network for the final section of this paper.