PROVIDENCE, R.I.—When former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his foundation was awarding $5 million to launch Providence’s high-tech idea to improve the vocabularies of the city’s youngest children, he said he hoped the pilot could take root in Rhode Island and spread across the U.S.
Three years later, more than 500 families have participated in Providence Talks, which uses wearable audio recorders to count every word spoken by toddlers and their parents in low-income households.
But whether the pioneering program is a national model or just an interesting concept hasn’t been settled.
Most child development experts agree on one thing: poor pre-school children hear far fewer words than wealthy children.
That can lead them to fall behind in building early literacy skills, and, when they grow older, to do poorly in school.
Providence’s program was envisioned as a way to close what’s called the “word gap” by encouraging parents to speak more with their infants and toddlers.
Social workers regularly visit homes, delivering charts that show how many words were spoken each hour and day—excluding from TV and radio.
They talk about methods to boost the count and enrich conversations, from reading picture books to chatting about the texture of peanut butter or vegetables while walking down the supermarket aisle.
And while the program’s own self-evaluation last year found that participating parents are talking more with their kids, the results for children are inconclusive and might not be known until they grow older.
No one promised immediate success but devoting so much to an unproven program worries some experts.
“It’s a really well-intentioned program and I very sincerely hope it succeeds, but it doesn’t have any firm basis in existing research,” said James Morgan, a Brown University professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences who studies early childhood literacy and has been an adviser to the program.
“Providence Talks is one huge field study. But that’s not what Bloomberg intended it to be,” Morgan adeed.
“If this should end up failing, people will throw up their hands and say nothing works, and that’s that.”
But Morgan’s skepticism hasn’t deterred Providence Talks boosters from trying to scale up the program to reach at least 2,500 families by late 2017.
With nearly two more years before Bloomberg’s grant is supposed to run out, organizers are enrolling more families by doing group sessions in addition to personalized home visits.
An outreach campaign at the city’s main birthing hospital spreads the message as soon as children are born.
The program prizes a rich variety of words but doesn’t preference any language—an essential ingredient in a city where 40 percent of residents are Latino.
Darly Niebla said it didn’t take long for her one-year-old daughter, Gracey, to get used to wearing a recorder attached to a vest.
A pediatrician recommended that she and her husband join the program because the girl wasn’t talking yet.
Niebla said she already was accustomed to conversing with her kids—her older daughter was chatty from an early age—but home visitors coached her to try other tactics, such as getting on the floor with Gracey to engage her more directly.
Beating about 300 other cities for the $5-million grand prize of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayoral Challenge was “probably the proudest, if not the proudest, day of my administration,” said former Providence Mayor Angel Taveras.
His successor, Jorge Elorza, who took over last year, also supports the program, which has its own office inside Providence City Hall.
“We’re hopeful this is a model for the rest of the country, and raises awareness of parents across the county and really across the world,” Taveras said.
The concept already is expanding in other cities.
The LENA Research Foundation, the Colorado non-profit organization that developed the recording device, launched two new programs last year using the group session model in Huntsville, Ala. and the San Mateo County Library system in California.
It will expand this spring to Minneapolis, Houston, and Ames, Iowa.