Providence’s Early Childhood Initiative Wins Big for Its Focus on Early Language Development

By Emily Firgens

Young children learn language through their environment. During infancy, babies are intensely listening to the sounds and words of the world around them. As toddlers, children begin to form simple sentences and questions and express ideas and opinions. During preschool years, children build a larger vocabulary, using more complex language and complete sentences. It is during these stages of language development that caregivers‘ support and understanding is essential.  

Providence, Rhode Island is working to ensure caregivers understand just how important a young child’s early language development is, and how they can best support it, through their new early childhood initiative, Providence Talks. The initiative seeks to increase and improve upon young children’s exposure to language and vocabulary, and is based on research that shows that by age 3, children in low-income families hear on average 30 million fewer words than children in middle and upper-income families. This word gap can severely impact school readiness and future language skills.   

Providence Talks will provide children under age 5 with small electronic devices that record every conversation and word spoken to them throughout the day. Parents will then receive monthly coaching sessions with social workers on how to boost their child’s vocabulary. The devices are able to filter out television and radio, and will also work for English, Spanish, and other languages. In order to prevent them from being damaged, the device will come with special clothing that holds it  in place. The program is voluntary, and the city intends to offer it to all low-income families. By 2018, they hope to have 2,850 families participating.

Pitched as part of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge contest, Provide Talks was recently awarded the contest’s $5 million grand prize for its innovation, impact, and potential to be implemented in other cities.

While the program’s long-term impact has yet to be seen, Providence Talks is a new and innovative approach to improving young children’s language and vocabulary in both the short and long-term.  It is one example of a growing recognition of how important adult-child interactions, like those found in high-quality child care and early education, are to improving children’s language and literacy skills.