Want Smart Kids? Talk to Them—and Listen to Them.

The state of the universe.
Sept. 27 2013 7:08 AM

Baby Talk Bonanza

Children aren’t born smart. They’re made smart by conversation.

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The Thirty Million Words trial took a bigger intervention to a low-income population, following 25 mothers through eight weeks of home visits and recordings. In low-income households, parents commonly speak to their children in simple commands, and participant Aneisha Newell said the week on directives was particularly significant to her. “Instead of saying, ‘go put on your shoes,’ I can say, ‘All right, it’s time to go. What else do you need? … That gives my child the chance to respond, and say, ‘shoes,’ ” said Newell, 25, who has a 4-year-old daughter and a 10-month-old son and works for a company providing recess supervision and after-school activities in Chicago Public Schools.

Newell said many of her friends and relatives think she’s crazy for talking to her daughter as if she’s an adult. “I can quote this: ‘Neisha, no one wants to sit and talk to the kids like they understand’ That’s basically the response I get.” During her time being recorded by Thirty Million Words, Newell became competitive with herself. One day, she spoke an average 2,736 words per hour to her daughter, Alona Sharp, compared with a normal rate of 1,023.

She jokes that sometimes even she wonders if she’s gone too far. “She asks so many questions I’m like, ‘What did I get myself into?’ ” Newell said, laughing. “We’ll be on the bus, and people will look over … She cracks people up sometimes, ‘What is this little girl talking about?’ ” Newell is proud that her daughter can spell her first and last names, recite her address and phone number, recognize and spell colors, and count to 200. She’s also frustrated that more of Alona’s peers can’t do the same.

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“If you have people who don’t read, what do you expect for the child?” Newell said. “It’s like, ‘ding dong.’ Somebody please pay attention.”

* * *

Dana Suskind believes passionately that all communities deserve access to information that will make their children educationally successful. But, she says, not all communities have the same access.

Case in point: a pile on her desk of more than a dozen books on child language development. The titles include Everything Your Baby Would Ask, Baby Talk, and Baby! Talk! What do they have in common? The parents and babies on the covers are all white.

Activism runs in Suskind’s blood. Her father, once a Peace Corps physician in Senegal, spent years as a pediatrics professor specializing in child malnutrition. Her mother is a social worker whose old newspaper op-eds and letters to the editor on various injustices Suskind keeps in a green folder on her desk.

In residency at the University of Pennsylvania, Suskind met Donald Liu, a fellow pediatric surgeon. They were married for 17 years. He rose to prominence for his work in minimally invasive surgery on children. On Aug. 5, 2012, while on a family vacation, Liu drowned in Lake Michigan helping to save two boys struggling in treacherous currents.

The tragedy fueled Suskind’s determination to take her vision for child language development even further. Whatever impact she is able to have, she feels, the work helps her remain connected to her husband. In the middle of sleepless nights, her and Liu’s own three kids will find her under the covers, working on her laptop. The eldest, 14-year-old Genevieve, is pouring her energy into a cause to help children: a website for those who have lost a parent. “Purpose gives you the ability to see beyond your own grief,” Suskind said.

She is actively seeking new funders for her research. A $1.6 million startup grant from the U.S. Department of Education for Project Aspire will run out next year; a $350,000 grant from the Colorado-based Hemera Foundation supports Thirty Million Words.

Jadiel Engstrom, with father Neil, pretends to have a phone conversation with his mother, Carmen DeLeon.
Jadiel Engstrom, who has received cochlear implants in order to hear, pretends to have a phone conversation with his mother.

Photo courtesy Kim Palmer/Hechinger Report

In December 2012, Suskind surgically placed a cochlear implant on the left inner ear of a 10-month-old boy named Jadiel Engstrom. In April of this year, Suskind implanted Jadiel’s right side. His parents, Carmen DeLeon and Neil Engstrom, were petrified of the operations, but they went ahead thanks to Suskind’s reassurances.

They had already been on a painful journey, discovering that their baby could not hear and that they didn’t know how to communicate with him. Suddenly, Jadiel could hear when they attached magnetic microphones to two circular bumps that the implants make in his blonde curls. What then?

The parents enrolled in the clinical trial of Project Aspire, which offered strategies for helping Jadiel make sense of the new sensations. For instance: When they speak to him, they need to give him a chance to respond. They finished the program in May, but the 36-year-old Engstrom, who works nights stocking trucks, still brings Jadiel weekly to Suskind’s office to meet with a speech and language therapist. And the boy, at 19 months, is trying mightily to talk. Jadiel’s three older sisters speak to him, and he babbles back. He tries to imitate everything they do.

“The surgery is the easiest part,” said DeLeon, 33, a licensed practical nurse. “The long journey is getting him to speak.”

More than 99 percent of newborns in the United States are screened for congenital hearing impairments while still in the hospital. Only about two in 1,000 have such impairments, but Suskind imagines using the time during the hearing test to show all new mothers a video about the power of parent talk. Get the message out in enough places, her thinking goes, and maybe it will go viral.

Whether or not her vision is carried out on a large scale, Suskind finds much joy in changing the lives of individual children and families. She lights up when she sees Jadiel. “You get to watch these kids and their families, their whole trajectory,” she said. “What a great honor.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

Sara Neufeld, a contributing editor for the Hechinger Report, has been covering public education for 13 years.

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