Saturday, October 24, 2015

Book Review: Thirty Million Words - Highly Recommend

When my middle son was in first grade, I brought along my youngest to a parent-teacher conference. During our conversation, both of the boys stood a short distance away reciting a math progression they had recently learned from the outstanding children's book Rock, Brock, and the Savings Shock. Away they bantered: "1+1 is 2, 2+2 is 4, 4+4 is 8, 8+8 is 16, 16+16 is 32, 32+32 is 64, 64+64 is 128, 128+128 is 256, 256+256 is 512" ... up and up they kept going. They were newly-7 and 4-1/2 at the time. The teacher marveled at their math skills and asked me, pointedly, what I may have done to bring out such math skills in my boys. The only thing I could think to tell her, in the moment, was that we talked about math often and I incorporated math into everyday life regularly. For example, every night since they were infants, I would rock on the rocking chair and while they set about to the task of falling asleep, I would count out loud to one or two hundred before leaving the room (This also worked at nap times, when I would tell my reluctant napper that he only had to remain absolutely still while Mommy counted as high as 200 and if he was still awake, then he could get up.)

Today, I have proof that these attempts to raise their math performance potentials really worked. It is not only that my boys do very well in math. I have firm support in a recently released book, Thirty Million Words: Building a Child's Brain - Tune In, Talk More, Take Turns. Written by Dana Suskind, M.D., the book puts forth the theory that "parent talk" is one's most powerful resource for insuring that your child will reach their optimum brain development and tap into all of their potential. Although math is a very small component to the discussion in this book, I recognized the validity of my own assertions that incorporating math concepts into daily discussions is the best way to increase the pre-school levels of math ability.

This book's focus is on the over-all potential a child holds for brain development and explores ways in which that potential has been short-changed in our society. The author begins by citing some studies identifying the early language environment for families in a wide spectrum of socio-economic levels. These studies resulted in the discovery of the thirty million word gap. It became clear that children in more affluent homes heard thirty million more words (and of a wider variety) than their counterparts in welfare homes. Not only that, but they received more positive words. While professional children heard 664,000 affirmations and 104,000 prohibitions, welfare children heard 104,000 affirmations and 228,000 prohibitions. The book attributes the "achievement gap" in kids to the differences in early language environments.

Parents have a window of opportunity, from birth through the third year, to establish the rich language environment necessary for optimum brain development. The author states, "By the end of age three, the human brain, including its one hundred billion neurons, has completed about 85% of its physical growth, a significant part of the foundation for all thinking and learning." The goal of this book is to encourage parents to understand the TMW gap and to take the necessary steps to ensure that their own children receive a richer, more varied, early language environment. To do so, the author provides a simple mantra for parents to reflect on: The Three T's - Tune In, Talk More, and Take Turns. Interaction is key. You cannot simply expose a child to audio or video of rich language and expect that to increase the brain's firing synapses. You have to get down on the child's level, allow for child directed speech, and engage the child in interaction. Even "baby talk," often ridiculed as inferior, serves a purpose and "helps babies' brains parse out sound and commit to the language they'll be using." What you say and how you say it is, ultimately, very important.

While I believe that this initiative is a vital message to be sending to parents everywhere, I wonder whether the parents who would benefit from the message the most will even pick up the book to read its findings. Moreover, I don't believe the message is quite the panacea it is presented as in the book. At one point, the author writes "It's simply a matter of parents understanding the importance of the language environment and, when there is a need, having accessible, readily available supports in place. Understanding the TMW gap also helps set the stage for turning the tide for all children. In this regard, the science is clear. In order to close the achievement gap, in order to ensure that all children in this country are able to achieve their potentials, well-designed, carefully monitored programs, based on scientific evidence, must exist to help it occur." In other words, in order to solve the problem of lower-income children not reaching their potential, we simply need to educate parents about their important role in fostering the optimum language environment and provide programs to stimulate more talk and beneficial interaction. Personally, I don't think greater understanding or more government programs will eradicate the problem.

Here again, I fall back upon an example from my own background. When I was teaching, I had a particular student who seemed to always be in trouble. I did everything I could to encourage better behavior in this student and when I caught him doing something positive, I decided to phone home to alert the parents of his positive actions. What followed was the most eye-opening conversation I've had in regard to a problem student. When the father took the phone, I knew that the student was standing nearby. This father proceeded to berate the child extensively to me, repeating over and over again that he was just a screw-up and a sorry excuse of a human being. In trying to reinforce the positive, I learned just how extensive a negative environment this child endured.

While you can make every effort to provide parents with skills to improve their interactions with their children, and to enhance their ability to tap into the brain's key development period, you cannot create the changes required simply through understanding of the TMW gap. You cannot enforce change. You can hope for it. You can reach as many as you can, but there will always be parents like the one I encountered in this particular phone call.

Having said that, I still consider this a book I would highly recommend to anyone and everyone I can. The book is extremely well-written (great structure and readability) and is full of interesting scientific studies, thoughtful encouragements for parents and teachers alike, and practical advice for building a child's brain. Even though my children are long past those first three crucial years, I enjoyed reading about the very way in which I may have fostered just such a rich early language environment to stimulate their brain development.

I listened to the book in audio form, but then checked the book out to go over more thoroughly in hardback form. If you are parenting a small child between birth and four years of age, you would certainly benefit from reading this book. Teachers will find the book interesting. Moreover, if you are at all interested in ideas about the development and malleability of the brain, this is sure to appeal. I believe this book serves a noble purpose. I just wish that understanding, alone, was all it took to change behavior and improve society as a whole. If so, this book would, indeed, put us on the path to a better world.

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