In their highly influential study of vocabulary development in the early years, Hart and Risley (1995) showed that parents in professional careers spoke 32 million more words to their children than did parents on welfare, accounting for the vocabulary and language gap at age 3 and the maths gap at age 10 between the children from different home backgrounds.
A critique of the study pointed to a language deficit perspective, social stereotyping and methodological flaws such as selection bias (Dudly-Marling and Lucas, 2009). Some of the points that were raised about language style such as length and tone of an utterance, (comparing longer and more persuasive utterances in middle class homes with shorter, more direct utterances in welfare homes) may indeed highlight cultural differences rather than deficits. However, according to the theory of dynamic attending, shorter utterances, a more direct tone and more abrupt exchanges may influence a child’s attention (Jones et al., 2009), but of course the difference only becomes a deficit if as the child begins pre-school, their attention is too fragile to assimilate the curriculum.
Although the richness of vocabulary was hugely advantageous for children from better-off homes in the Hart and Risley study, researchers have discovered that the opportunities for conversational turns between parents and their children, for example when sharing a book, were even more beneficial than vocabulary development. Conversations have also been identified as a marker for maternal responsiveness, positive emotional exchange and social engagement (Paul & Gilkerson, 2017). From a rhythm-processing perspective, conversations nurture the child’s ability to listen, to engage, to respond and to reciprocate at precise moments in time. Feed-forward systems known to support language acquisition are rhythmically sensitive (Saffran et al., 1996) as are language generating processes such as associative priming (Jones & Estes, 2012).
In pre-school classrooms of societies which have relatively high levels of social inequality, it is unacceptable that an attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers still persists twenty years after the publication of the Hart and Risley study. Simply obtaining and critiquing data on attainment and home background is an inadequate response to a persistent problem. As educators we have a responsibility to close the attainment gap and to do so systematically, using a child-centred and holistic approach that is sufficiently bold and rigorous to ensure effective change.
Children who arrive at pre-school with fragile attention and are not yet ready to learn are not difficult to identify. Some children may demonstrate flat attention - generally they are difficult to engage. Some children may have a scattered pattern of fragmented attention - they demonstrate mainly impulsive behaviour. Some children are able to focus their attention, only to find that it fades before they have completed the task. Regardless of whether these children have missed out on the everyday conversations and interactions that systematically nurture cognitive attention during infancy and early childhood, their learning is supported by stable attention, and according to dynamic attending theory (e.g. Jones et al., 2009), stable attention is supported by rhythmic awareness.
Awareness of rhythm in terms of the conscious perception of words, music, movement and gesture is only the tip of the iceberg, as rhythm is processed to a large extent subconsciously. This subconscious element of rhythmic processing is difficult to teach without specialist training; for example, fragile attention cannot be addressed by simply chanting nursery rhymes or shaking tins of rice in the classroom. However, with a little training and knowledge of the mechanisms that are involved, it is possible to work effectively with both the conscious and subconscious aspects of rhythmic awareness in the classroom, to achieve transformational effects on reading attainment and to do so over a very short period of time (Long, 2014).
Dudley-Marling, C., & Lucas, K. (2009). Pathologizing the Language and Culture of Poor Children. Language Arts, 86(5), 362.
Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Brookes.
Jones MR, Johnston HM, Puente J. Effects of auditory pattern structure on anticipatory and reactive attending. Cognitive psychology. 2006;53:59–96
Jones, L. L. & Estes, Z. (2012). Lexical priming: Associative, semantic, and thematic influences on word recognition. In J. S. Adelman (Ed.), Visual Word Recognition, Volume 2. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.
Long, M. (2014). ‘I can read further and there’s more meaning while I read’: An exploratory study investigating the impact of a rhythm-based music intervention on children’s reading. Research Studies in Music Education, 36(1), 107-124.
Paul, T.D. and Gilkerson, J. (2017). The Talk Gap, In R. Horowitz and S.J. Samuels, The Achievement Gap in Reading: Complex Causes, Persistent Issues, Possible Solutions, Routledge.
Saffran, J.R., Aslin, R.N. & Newport, E.L. Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants. Science 274, 1926–1928 (1996).