In the late ‘90s, Clinton convened a White House conference on early-childhood development, working in her capacity as the First Lady. Then, in 2013, she announced the Clinton Foundation’s “Too Small to Fail” initiative, which in part intends to expose parents to scientific research on child development, and engage businesses as partners in doing so. With nearly each effort, Clinton has highlighted Hart and Risley’s study. Too Small to Fail has launched a campaign through social media and community partnerships, “Talking is Teaching: #TalkReadSing,” to encourage parents to engage in those activities with their children. (Clinton resigned from her board position in April in order to focus on her presidential run.)
The talking campaign has attracted support from all kinds of influential entities and players—the American Academy of Pediatrics and Univision are just two of its partners. Celebrities like Jennifer Garner and Kelly Rowland have joined the effort, mooing and clapping their way through PSAs about talking, reading, and singing. Elmo nabbed an exclusive interview with Chelsea Clinton for People magazine, in which the former first daughter revealed how often she and her husband read to their young daughter, Charlotte. When Dana Suskind, a University of Chicago neurosurgeon, published her book, Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain, last fall, Arne Duncan, then the Secretary of Education, headlined an event on her book tour.* President Obama partnered with Too Small to Fail in 2014 for “Bridging the Word Gap week,” a White House initiative that announced federal grants to fund “low-cost, scalable technological interventions” to support caregivers’ interactions with their children. These advocates see talking, reading, and singing as ways parents can make a big impact in their children’s lives, particularly when those children grow up in poverty. In the United States, 47 percent of children under 5 live in low-income families.
In a video for Too Small to Fail, Cindy McCain, the wife of Senator John McCain, spoke of the “word gap” as one might refer to an illness, noting, “This troubling difference among vocabularies in young children presents itself early in life.” She urged parents, “It’s not hard, and it doesn’t take any money. All it takes is a little love and a little time throughout the day to build talking, reading, and singing into the parent’s daily schedule.” But experts wonder: Is the word gap really as wide as advocates claim? And if so, is closing it really that easy?
Some scholars have suggested the “word gap” study was overly simplistic, and that its implications have been exaggerated. A group of linguistic anthropologists concerned with social justice has raised concerns about the study’s racial undertones and its methodology. They point out that the sample size was small—just 42 families in the Kansas City area—and that nearly all of the professional families were white, while all of the six families receiving welfare were black. There are challenging, historically rooted power dynamics at play when researchers enter homes of low-income people of color, two members of this group, Eric Johnson and Netta Avineri, stressed in an interview. These linguistic anthropologists and other scholars have suggested that the highly educated, white families may have become more talkative than normal with their children in response to the presence of university researchers, where the less-educated, black families in Hart and Risley’s study may have become withdrawn, fearing judgment. “Think about how odd that is—a family is welcoming someone into their home who is not part of their community, and whose only purpose there is to study them,” Johnson said.