We originally pitched the question how can we effectively narrow the vocabulary gap between low and high SES children?

We received mostly positive feedback and people thought our project was moonshot material. The people who thought our project was a yellow light wanted to know more about the long term effects of the 30 million word gap. This is a valid concern, and we’ll look for more studies that show the long term effect of the word gap. Other comments mentioned picking a time to intervene, mainly before or after children start school. We decided to focus on solutions for preschool age children who likely cannot read yet.

After reviewing our feedback we have revised our question to be how can we effectively narrow the vocabulary gap between low and high SES preschool-aged children to lessen long term effects?

Potential Solutions:

  1. Interactive e-books that ask kids to identify new words (ie after talking about a zebra, asking what is this to the zebra illustration, duolingoish)

We decided to incorporate this idea; this technology seems like it will help to engage young children in more conversations.

2. Train teachers to effectively teach kids with different levels of vocabulary

Not selected because: it is time-consuming and expensive to institute large scale change in teaching styles, and it would be hard to continue to check to make sure the teachers are maintaining the new style.

3. Word cookies for children

Not selected because: the children will not know many words, so it will be difficult to get them to identify words from letters. It’s more important to get them to hear and recognize the syllables in order to understand the words.

4. Afterschool/summer school program for low SES kids while parents are working

We selected this idea and combined it with idea number 6 to create a program that would connect kids with adults who would spend time talking with them in a relatively informal setting.

5. Educational/training program to educate parents on importance of talking to their kids

Not selected because it is unlikely we will be able to fundamentally change the way parents interact/raise their children on a wide scale.

6. Vocabulary intervention in schools for struggling students

We selected this idea in combination with number 4 to create an after-school or summer school program that would help increase word learning for kids who may be behind

7. Create audiobooks/tapes for parents to play for children when they are not with them

We decided to incorporate this idea; this technology seems like it will help to engage young children in more conversations.

8. AI that talks to children; like a chatbot

We decided to incorporate this idea; this technology seems like it will help to engage young children in more conversations.

We  decided to combine 1,7,8 into a solution using technology and 4,6 into a solution using after-school programs with vocabulary intervention.

Conversational turns or the back and forth between children and adults are essential to learning vocabulary and the rhythm of  conversations. Studies found that a lack of conversational turns between children and parents of low SES have contributed to the 30 million word gap. We are developing solutions that specifically take this into mind because back and forth conversations are much more effective at helping children learn words than simply just hearing them. Since low SES families may be less present due to working, we want to use technology to build tools that allow kids to hear and practice new words. This could include building AI chatbots that talk to children like a parent would or interactive e-books that would read to children and ask them simple questions like “what animal is this?” to simulate conversational turns. These tools would be presented as a game to children so that they would be excited to participate and not feel self-conscious that they are falling behind their peers.

Another potential solution would be an after-school and/or summer school program designed to both provide childcare and give kids one on one time with adults who can help them with homework and spend time talking to them. Ideally, this type of program would be externally funded (so free to parents) and would create a space where kids could have conversations with adults and work on vocabulary/schoolwork but also have time to engage in less structured activities. In that sense, the program would not explicitly be a vocabulary intervention that would call attention to specific children in a negative way, but would still play a role in increasing the number of words the kids heard each day.