Cultivating Rich Early Language Environments for All Children

Dana and Babyby Kristin Leffel, Elizabeth Suskind, and Dana Suskind

Project ASPIRE—or Achieving Superior Parental Involvement for Rehabilitative Excellence—is founded upon the belief that every child has the right to communicate and engage with the world around him or her.  Each child has a unique potential for listening and spoken language, and all parents have the capacity to help their child reach that potential.  Central to Project ASPIRE’s guiding principles is the belief that parents are their child’s first and most important teachers and hold the key to unlocking their child’s full potential. 

But there are stark differences in outcomes in children who start with very similar potentials.  An ever-growing body of research demonstrates that children’s early language environments are the pivotal factor determining their ultimate skills as effective communicators.  Even with early auditory access, a child’s early language environment can make or break his or her listening and spoken language, school readiness, and ultimate lifelong trajectory.  Disparate early language environments lead to disparate outcomes.

What is it about a child’s early language environment that is so important?  The salient difference is how and how much parents talk with their children.  In a ground-breaking study, researchers found a startling difference in how much parents talk with their children: children from more affluent homes heard 30 million more words by age 3 than children from more impoverished environments (Hart & Risley, 1995).  Yet the language disparity is not merely quantitative.  Children in language-rich environments heard more complex, descriptive language, more encouragements, and also fewer directives.   

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The impact of these environments on children’s school readiness was profound.  The children who heard 30 million more words—those from strong early language environments—began school on track for reading and learning and held their advantage over their peers.  The children who heard 30 million fewer words—those from weak early language environments—began school with smaller vocabularies, were poorer readers, and remained behind their peers.  Early language environments are everything.

This is the stark scenario we see all too often at the Pediatric Hearing Loss and Cochlear Implant Program at the University of Chicago Medicine.  Even with prompt, appropriate auditory access, under-resourced children tend to fare more poorly than their peers from more affluent environments.  In general, all children from weak language environments fall short from meeting their learning potentials.  For children with hearing loss, the consequences of an impoverished language environment are even farther reaching: their very ability for basic communication is put at risk.

Our goal at Project ASPIRE is to address this by equipping parents with both the knowledge and skills to provide their children with the rich language environments necessary to reach their full potentials.  The program is an evidence-based, early intervention (EI) curriculum designed to enrich the early language environments of underserved children ages birth to 5 whose families have chosen listening and spoken language as their primary form of communication.  Holding true to Project ASPIRE’s foundational tenet that parents are children’s first and most important teachers, the curriculum is parent-centered, delivering practical, accessible content that is easy to remember and easy to incorporate into everyday routines. 

Our computer-based, multimedia curriculum presents a classic listening and spoken language approach with a fresh educational approach that combines animation, videos of real families in daily routines, and a novel strategy we call “quantitative linguistic feedback” (Suskind et al., 2013).  Parents meet with ASPIRE-trained early interventionists in their own home over the course of 10 weekly home visits.  Sessions are discussion-driven, interactive, and tailored to the unique needs of the child.  Through this parent-EI partnership, parents learn not only concrete, practical strategies for promoting listening and spoken language with their child, but also tangible ways to adopt those strategies into their everyday lives. 

The quantitative linguistic feedback is parents’ important partner in putting what they learn into action.  Through the use of the LENA (Language Environment Analysis) technology, which functions as a word pedometer, parents can actually see what their child hears throughout the day.  With weekly feedback on their language and interaction with their child, the parent-EI team can track parents’ progress as they enrich their child’s language environments. 

The Project ASPIRE curriculum is the result of multidisciplinary collaboration.  Its scientific foundation has been translated into easy-to-understand concepts and strategies useful to families and EI therapists throughout the country.  Understanding where the need primarily lies, Project ASPIRE has set a high priority on diversity and cultural sensitivity in a format accessible to underserved and hard to reach communities.

Children’s early language environments have an immutable impact on the rest of their lives.  Parents are the key to help their children flourish. We know the disparity in language environments, and thus outcomes, will not be alleviated until all families have access to the resources they need.  Project ASPIRE is dedicated to partnering with parents to ensure that all children with hearing loss reach their full listening and spoken language potentials.  

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H Brookes Publishing.

Suskind, D., Leffel, K. R., Hernandez, M. W., Sapolich, S. G., Suskind, E., Kirkham, E., & Meehan, P. (in press). An Exploratory Study of "Quantitative Linguistic Feedback": Effect of LENA Feedback on Adult Language Production. Communication Disorders Quarterly. First published online before print on February 1, 2013, doi: 10.1177/1525740112473146.

Volta Voices (2013), Volume 20, Issue 3