Updates on the Internet and its social and public policy implications, useful websites, political/cultural musings and more from a UK-based academic, internet consultant and journalist
23 October 2013

It has long been understood by scientists (but not by enough parents) that the amount that children are talked to has a crucial impact on their later educational development so I was pleased to see the New York Times pick this story up. However it rather wastes this opportunity because it is so clumsily written – particularly in its handling of statistics.

The first paragraph is confusing and unhelpful “…by age 3, the children of wealthier professionals have heard words millions more times than those of less educated parents.” Clearly, rich kids don’t hear millions of times more words than poor ones but that might be what you pick up from a quick scan. Further down the story, “because professional parents speak so much more to their children, the children hear 30 million more words by age 3 than children from low-income households”– unfortunately, this is meaningless unless you know how many million words both kinds of children heard overall. The difference is only hinted at near the end of the piece when you finally find out (through a different study) that “some of the children, who were 19 months at the time, heard as few as 670 “child-directed” words in one day, compared with others in the group who heard as many as 12,000″.

Very annoyingly, despite saying the 20 year old study in the first paragraph was a “landmark” there is no link to the study on the website or information to guide readers so they could find it later. The story makes reference to new findings being based on a “small sample” but doesn’t say how small.

Crucially while it seems to suggest that pre-kindergarden schooling could make up for this gap, it presents no evidence for this. Intuitively, to solve this particular problem a big push to get parents to talk to their babies and small children would be much more effective since they spend much more time with them than any educator could.

Ironically there was a much better-explained story on the same issue also from the NYT back in April – but not alas in the print edition.

So Tim could you take this as a reasonable excuse to bring some important research to the public eye, and Motoko (whose work on the future of reading I have liked a great deal) could you go back to the piece online and tidy it up a bit if you get the chance?

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