Airon Pate is bouncing off the walls.
The not-quite-2-year-old is waiting with his mom Dominique and brother Aiden, 4, to be seen at a federally subsidized clinic for low-income women and children here in Macon, Georgia. Sitting still is not in his repertoire of tricks.
Over there to play with a toy. Up on the child-sized table wedged into the corner. Across the room to touch base with mom, chattering the entire time.
The constant babble exhausts Dominique, 25, but thrills the clinic nutritionist charged with implementing a relatively new statewide effort to get parents to talk to their babies. Called simply “Talk With Me Baby,” the program is a multifaceted attempt to fill the massive 30 million-word gap between children from lower- and upper-income families by making sure that babies from all backgrounds hear lots of words.
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Research suggests that poor children hear about 600 words per hour, while affluent children hear 2,000. By age 4, a poor child has a listening vocabulary of about 3,000 words, while a wealthier child wields a 20,000-word listening vocabulary. So it’s no surprise that poor children tend to enter kindergarten already behind their wealthier peers. But it’s not just the poverty that holds them back—it’s the lack of words. In fact, the single-best predictor of a child’s academic success is not parental education or socioeconomic status, but rather the quality and quantity of the words that a baby hears during his or her first three years.