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Language Nutrition

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Like many fathers, Javier Lopez ’18 enjoys reading to his son Lazaro, 17 months old. Reading is one of many ways parents can help build their children’s vocabularies and prepare them for success in school.

When Dr. Judith Carta ’72 accepted a volunteer opportunity in high school, she had no way of knowing she was beginning her life’s work.

Carta began to tutor children living in the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago — “an area of deep poverty,” as she described it. She was immediately struck by the children she met. 

“They were so eager to learn, yet their circumstances were so difficult,” said Carta.

Even in a challenging environment, she observed that the children responded eagerly to one-on-one interaction, caring and responsive teaching, and specialized instruction. This so impressed the teenage Carta that she became fascinated with trying to help children who lived in poverty and were at risk for learning delays or disabilities.

This passion would take her to Bradley for undergraduate study, Purdue University for her master’s degree and the University of Kansas for her doctorate in special education. Today, she is a nationally recognized expert on ways to help parents and teachers promote children’s early development and learning. 

Carta and colleagues from the University of Kansas are now at the forefront of a nationwide push to address a gap in children’s learning. The White House introduced the initiative, Bridging the Word Gap, in the fall of 2014. Carta’s team received a grant of nearly $600,000 from the Department of Health and Human Services to distribute among a national network of researchers.

Dr. Judith Carta ’72 engages with children at the Juniper Gardens Children’s Project in northeast Kansas City, Kan. The 50-year-old preschool program is a partnership between community members and University of Kansas researchers.

To acknowledge the influence of her undergraduate education, Carta recently established a scholarship in Bradley’s Department of Psychology to encourage the study of childhood development and research.

The ‘Language Gap’ Identified

Online

Visit bradley.edu/go/ht-Carta to learn more about Carta’s work with Juniper Gardens Children’s Project.

Go here for a story on Carta’s induction as a Bradley Centurion.

A landmark study in the 1980s at the University of Kansas by the late Drs. Betty Hart and Todd Risley made monthly home observations of the words that parents of different social classes addressed to their children during their first three years of life. After analyzing more than 1,300 hours of family interactions, the child psychologists concluded that by the time they were 36 months old, children from low-income families had heard up to 30 million fewer words than children from more affluent families.

Children learn from context, so the more words they hear and learn, the more new words they are able to understand. Thus, a language deficit among low-income children puts them at a disadvantage when they enter school. Established preschool programs like Head Start begin when a child is 3 years old, but by then, the gap may be too hard to overcome.

At the University of Kansas, Carta worked with the Hart and Risley research team to continue studying children who had been in their original research. “We learned that many reading or behavioral disabilities have their roots in a child’s early years,” she said. “But by working with parents and teachers, we could provide early intervention to prevent many of these delays and disabilities.”

The aim of Bridging the Word Gap is to encourage parents to increase their use of supportive talk, talk that is conversational and responsive to what is happening around the child. “It’s not just that parents need to talk more to their children,” Carta said. “The quality of the interactions matters.”

While research into best practices continues, the work has already begun. “Some cities are doing a broad message campaign. In Kansas City (Mo.), we’re doing simple messaging — on billboards, in utility bills. Our mayor supports it. It’s a communitywide effort.”

‘A Laboratory of Colleagues’

In Comstock Hall at the corner of Bradley Avenue and Institute Place (above), the Department of Psychology’s former home, Dr. Judith Carta ’72 had her first taste of life as a researcher. 

She had already decided to study special education. She was interested in children at risk for developmental delays or disabilities because they were being raised in poverty.

Even as undergraduates, Carta and her peers were respected members of the department’s research team, she said. “We had a rat lab in which we were studying avoidance behavior. I learned how to build a set of knowledge, starting with what we already knew and working toward what still needed to be determined. 

“We’d have informal seminars with students and faculty. It was an education in how science is conducted. We were a laboratory of colleagues learning together, shaping how I’ve worked as a scientist. I owe a lot to Bradley.”

Carta (back row, second from left) and a group of fellow Lovelace Hall resident advisers clown around in a photo from the 1971 Anaga.

She remembers psychology professors Drs. Claire Etaugh and Lawrence Reid, both of whom she called formative influences. In 2011–12, Carta returned to the Hilltop to accept the Distinguished Alumna Award from the Department of Psychology. 

“It was a thrill,” she said. “The psychology department had an exhibit of student research, a poster session. And I had a chance to go out to dinner with students. I was so impressed with how engaged they were.” 

Tapping Experts on Building a Child’s Brain

Elsewhere in the country, researchers are working with individual families. For example, once a month in Providence, R.I., at-risk infants and toddlers in a program called “Providence Talks” wear a digital language processor or “word pedometer” that records all the conversations the child hears in a day. Caseworkers visit regularly to support parents and give them feedback on ways they can enhance their child’s language environment. 

But parents aren’t a child’s only teachers, Carta noted. “Another approach is to work with child care providers,” she said. “We’ll get the word out through libraries, public health clinics, pediatric offices. We want to help all caregivers understand that the everyday language exchanges and socially engaged interactions actually nourish the child’s brain development. In fact, some have begun to call these everyday interactions with children “language nutrition™.”  

The Bridging the Word Gap Research Network, Carta explained, consists of more than 140 people. “We’re divided into work groups, each assigned a different research topic. We want to find the gaps in existing research so we can address them. We’re building a national research agenda that will guide the work to reduce this discrepancy in children’s early language environments that can make such a huge difference in their later academic success. 

“We want to leverage the power of these experts,” she added. “We’ll get new ideas and also appeal to those who can fund these efforts.” She cited the Clinton Global Initiative and Next Generation’s joint initiative “Too Small to Fail” as examples of current supporters.

‘This Idea Has Caught Fire’

Carta stresses that efforts to increase the amount and quality of communication to young children shouldn’t single out low-income parents. “I think of (the word gap) as a health disparity. For another health disparity, say, malnutrition, we’d pay attention to getting the child the right nutrients. I feel an urgency to give all children what they need to reduce the gap.

“And it isn’t solely related to income differences,” she added. “There are higher-income parents who aren’t talking to their young children enough because they spend so much time on their smartphones and other devices.” 

After decades of working both locally and nationally with researchers and child advocates, Carta believes the importance of providing language nutrition for infants and toddlers has reached a tipping point. 

“I’m so hopeful,” she said. “Seeing how this idea has caught fire has been incredible.”

— By Mary Brolley
Photo credits: Lopez family, Comstock Hall: Duane Zehr; Carta and children: courtesy Dr. Judith Carta ’72; Carta and classmates: Anaga.