Beginning more than 20 years ago, researchers started counting words in different environments and extrapolating the results to measure how many words disadvantaged children were missing out on.
"So the gap is about 30 million words during the course of four to five years, when the child is in development," said Kenneth Wong, a professor and director of the Urban Education Institute at Brown University, which has been studying the results of the Providence Talks program. "That's an enormous gap. The question is, what can we do about that challenge so that they can come to school prepared?"
The program uses the word pedometers, typically clipped to a child's clothing, to capture audio during the day. It's not designed to be an eavesdropping program. It logs the number of words a child hears and speaks and how many turns the child takes entering a conversation.
Researchers say that a minimum of 15,000 words a day is needed for strong language development, but many children from low-income households often get a fraction of that.
In Providence, low-income families were asked to volunteer. They agreed to use the devices and then meet with program workers to review the data. The program started with the workers visiting parents at home but it has evolved into a playgroup model, where groups of parents bring their children to a local library or community center.