By the time a poor child is 1 year old, she has most likely already fallen behind middle-class children in her ability to talk, understand and learn. The gap between poor children and wealthier ones widens each year, and by high school it has become a chasm. American attempts to close this gap in schools have largely failed, and a consensus is starting to build that these attempts must start long before school — before preschool, perhaps even before birth.
There is no consensus, however, about what form these attempts should take, because there is no consensus about the problem itself. What is it about poverty that limits a child’s ability to learn? Researchers have answered the question in different ways: Is it exposure to lead? Character issues like a lack of self-control or failure to think of future consequences? The effects of high levels of stress hormones? The lack of a culture of reading?
Another idea, however, is creeping into the policy debate: that the key to early learning is talking — specifically, a child’s exposure to language spoken by parents and caretakers from birth to age 3, the more the better. It turns out, evidence is showing, that the much-ridiculed stream of parent-to-child baby talk — Feel Teddy’s nose! It’s so soft! Cars make noise — look, there’s a yellow one! Baby feels hungry? Now Mommy is opening the refrigerator! — is very, very important. (So put those smartphones away!)
Tina Rosenberg won a Pulitzer Prize for her book “The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism.” She is a former editorial writer for The Times and the author, most recently, of “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World” and the World War II spy story e-book “D for Deception.”