You have reached your limit of free articles this month.

Enjoy unlimited access to

Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks.


  • ePAPER

You have read of premium articles.

Get unlimited access to all of our breaking news, in-depth coverage and bonus content- exclusively for subscribers. Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks


Welcome to

This subscriber-only site gives you exclusive access to breaking news, in-depth coverage, exclusive interactives and bonus content.

You can read free articles of your choice a month that are only available on

breaking news

Vote on GOP health plan delayed

Talk more to bridge language gap

Program targets 30 million-word discrepancy among low income kids.

There are a lot of reasons why kids from poorer households don’t do as well in school as youngsters from wealthier families.

Brenda Fitzgerald even has a number: 30 million.

By the age of 4, a child from a poor household has heard 30 million fewer words than one from a well-off family. That’s the verbal equivalent of 107 Sunday New York Times, or about 4,600 average President Obama speeches.

In this case, silence is not golden. That word gap can make the difference between dropping out of school or graduating, having a job vs. a career or even how long someone lives.

And it all goes back, said Fitzgerald, commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, to words. The more words your baby hears — the better his or her “language nutrition” — the better are his or her chances later in life.

A physician, Fitzgerald recently unveiled Talk To Me Baby, a program designed to narrow that word gap. State officials want to ensure that parents who visit any federal Women, Infant and Children aid program (WIC) clinic in the state understand how to make their children’s long-term prospects rosier.

“We want to get this message to the mothers of Georgia,” she said.

That message: Talk to your child. Constantly. Children exposed to a lot of talk more easily become readers.

By third grade, she said, “You learn to read. After that? You read to learn.”

Studies show that any child who is behind in his or her reading skills by the end of third grade isn’t likely to catch up with classmates, either. That can mean earning less money as an adult, or not living as long as others: Wealthier people tend to be healthier people, too.

“Language is like nutrition for your brain,” Fitzgerald said. “The more words you hear, the more your brain develops.”

Talking, said Fitzgerald, sets off reactions in an infant’s brain, which is hard-wired to learn language. A steady diet of words sets neurons racing through a child’s mind, enhancing its ability to learn words — and, in time, to read. Not talking to a child thwarts that growth, meaning reading won’t come so easily.

“And that,” said Fitzgerald, “has profound implications.”

According to state figures, about one-third of Georgia’s third-graders aren’t reading at third-grade level.

Talk To Me Baby is based on findings from a 1995 survey of 42 families from different economic backgrounds conducted by University of Kansas child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley. Each family had a child between 18 months and 2 years old in the home. After a four-year study, researchers came to the rueful conclusion that poorer kids are verbally impoverished from birth onward.

Public health has set aside $125,000 to train health-care professionals about the importance of words and to make language-nutrition videos that will be shown at WIC clinics across the state.

The program is timely, said Dr. Terri McFadden, a pediatrician at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Hughes Spalding. She’s been looking after children for more than 20 years, and understands the importance of talking to them.

“The gap (between children) is wide, and getting wider,” said McFadden, who noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics recently affirmed the importance of talking to children.

“Parents,” she added, “are the first and best teachers.”

The United Way of Greater Atlanta Inc. late last year also announced it would give $1.5 million to the program. The money will be distributed over three years, and will be used to teach nursing students, as well as practicing nurses, about the impact language has on infants. The grant also will focus on promoting language nutrition at selected metro hospitals in 13 counties.

The program is about to pick up momentum, said Dr. Jennifer Stapel-Wax, an associate professor at Emory University’s Department of Pediatrics. She’s also director of infant and toddler research at the Marcus Autism Center, one of several organizations participating in the program. Other participants include the Atlanta Speech School, Georgia Campaign for Grade Level Reading, Emory University, Georgia Tech and the state Department of Education.

“We want to make sure parents are aware,” Stapel-Wax said.

The program will eventually become statewide, said Ashley Darcy-Mahoney, a neonatal nurse practitioner who’s an associate professor at Emory’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing. Beginning this fall, the nursing school will incorporate Talk To Me Baby in its curriculum.

“We’re really trying to make it a public-health campaign,” she said.

Erica Robinson believes in the campaign’s message. Her daughter, Sandra, 17 months old, was born deaf. The child now has cochlear implants, allowing her to hear.

A kindergarten teacher, Erica Robinson understands the importance of words. “You can tell, from day 1, the kids in class that no one has talked to,” said Robinson.

Now that her daughter can hear, said Robinson, she’s making up for lost time. Sandra is responding, too. “She’s 100 percent catching up,” Robinson said.

Mom is helping, too. She talks to her daughter. Constantly.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Living

Climbing chihuahua attempts daring escape art Denver shelter
Climbing chihuahua attempts daring escape art Denver shelter

The dog kennels at the Denver Animal Shelter do not have tops on them, but that wasn’t a problem until Pearl arrived. The shelter posted a photo of the agile Chihuahua trying to make a daring escape from her enclosure. It looks like she almost made it, too. But Pearl didn’t spend much time at the Denver shelter. She was so shy that she...
Jermaine Dupri concert launch event showcases social media’s power

Remember when aspiring music stars dreamt of having their single played on the radio? How quaint. An event held this week pairing music industry veterans and a clutch of up and comers illustrated just how much things have changed.
From kids’ book character to star of puppet show: Meet Pete the Cat
From kids’ book character to star of puppet show: Meet Pete the Cat

In classrooms around the country, there’s a blue cat that’s getting lots of attention. He’s named Pete — Pete the Cat, and he’s the titular star of the popular children’s picture books. “Pete the Cat” has risen to become one of the biggest children’s book series to come from a Georgia author...
‘Power Rangers’ morphs from melodrama to doughnut commercial
‘Power Rangers’ morphs from melodrama to doughnut commercial

If you grew up watching Saban’s “Power Rangers” franchise, what elements from the Saturday morning show would you hope to see in Lionsgate’s 2017 cinematic reboot? If you demand mechas and the phrase “it’s morphin’ time,” you’re in luck. If you crave Elizabeth Banks menacingly whispering &ldquo...
Could your digital life use a little Spring cleaning?
Could your digital life use a little Spring cleaning?

When people think of Spring cleaning, most of us focus on our closets, houses or our desks at work. The Better Business Bureau serving Metro Atlanta, Athens and Northeast Georgia, though, encourages people to tidy up their digital devices as well. Someone I know well (ahem) has more than 800 photos stored on her phone and more than 15,000 emails on...
More Stories