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The Boston Globe

Ideas

THE WORD

Providence’s $5 million plan to shrink the “word gap”

Can a city boost achievement by recording, and changing, how parents talk to kids?

EVER SINCE a small but groundbreaking study in 1995, it’s been accepted wisdom that a child’s academic success is directly related to the amount of talk the child hears from adults in the first few years of life. Children in higher-income families hear more language than those in lower-income families; this disparity, the theory runs, leads to a “word gap” that puts poorer children at a disadvantage when they enter school.

Now, the city of Providence is set to put this theory to the test through new high-tech means, in the much larger setting of a city population—and then try to narrow the word gap for children in real time. Earlier this month, the city won the $5 million grand prize in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, based on its proposal for a project called Providence Talks. The plan is to equip low-income children with recording devices that calculate how many words they hear, and then coach parents on how to boost their children’s language exposure.

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