Talk to Them—and Listen to Them. You can find new stories here. Aneisha Newell, playing with daughter Alona Sharp and son Amod Newell, uses fewer directives with her children since participating in the Thirty Million Words trial, instead asking open-ended questions that give them an opportunity language development of older children respond.
Pediatric surgeon Dana Suskind understands the gravity of her responsibility when a parent entrusts her to cut into a baby’s head. She does so as part of a delicate, two-hour operation to attach a cochlear implant to a deaf or hearing-impaired child’s inner ear. She does not consider an operation successful if it results merely in a child being able to hear. Six years ago, Suskind noticed a disturbing trend among her patients at the University of Chicago Medicine: While children from affluent families were starting to speak after implant surgery, those from low-income families lagged behind. The question ate at Suskind, who co-founded the hospital’s cochlear implant unit in 2006. She believes she discovered her answer in research by child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R.
The gap was stark for Suskind’s patients. Since the implications of her observations extended to all children, hearing and deaf alike, she felt compelled to find practical solutions for all parents, particularly those of limited means. Today, the 45-year-old doctor is trying to turn research that is well established within academic circles into a social movement. Her message is simple: Children aren’t born smart. They’re made smart by their parents talking to them. So Suskind, a half-dozen staff members, and a rotating cast of student research assistants are developing strategies to get parents to engage their children in rich, meaningful conversation from the moment they’re born. Every word they say is like a penny in the bank of their child’s mind.
They’ve completed the first trial of their Thirty Million Words Project, in which Suskind’s staff visited the homes of low-income mothers on the South Side and trained them in a parent-talk curriculum they developed. Suskind’s team has numerous studies at various stages, from the planning process to newly published. One staff member is studying how to reach mothers of newborns while they’re still in the hospital. Others are exploring a potential partnership with an established home-visiting program in Chicago to administer an updated Thirty Million Words curriculum. Ideas abound, from young father outreach to working with libraries and pediatricians’ offices.