UChicago doctor examines language across socioeconomic levels

University Communications

As a surgeon specializing in cochlear implantation, Dana Suskind helps deaf children hear. Yet she began to notice a profound disparity in learning achievement between newly hearing children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds and those from other households. 

“The children from less affluent homes weren’t doing as well, even though they could hear and had similar potential to learn,” says Suskind, a UChicago associate professor and director of the Pediatric Cochlear Implantation Program. “I realized that just being able to hear with their cochlear implants wasn’t enough. My patients from less-affluent homes were not receiving the same linguistic input, and that’s what held back their achievement.”

Determined, Suskind set out to create Project ASPIRE, a federally funded, research-based outreach program to improve the linguistic and learning environments of her patients with hearing loss. For Suskind, the lost potential in these critical early years was nothing less than a tragedy for these children. She dove into available research at the University of Chicago and elsewhere to first understand and then address this loss.

But soon, Suskind realized that the disparity she noted among her hearing loss patients mirrored the outcomes of her patient population as a whole. So Suskind turned toward the ever-growing body of early childhood research emerging from UChicago’s Department of Psychology, including Profs. Susan Goldin-Meadow and Susan Levine.

Their research convinced Suskind even further of the power of words to unlock a child’s potential. Goldin-Meadow’s work has found that children’s language acquisition can be enhanced by responding to gestures, while Levine’s research has shown that mathematical and spatial reasoning can be expanded by simply talking about numbers and shapes.

Thirty Million Words Project

From collaboration with these and many other researchers across the University came the Thirty Million Words Project, a multifaceted parent education and behavior change pilot program for families on Chicago’s South Side. Studies show that all children raised in enhanced language environments, regardless of their socioeconomic status, have significantly improved school readiness and IQs.

Thanks to funding from the Hemera Foundation, a University of Chicago Clinical and Translational Science award and The University of Chicago Women’s Board, the Thirty Million Words Project teaches parents the critical importance of linguistic input in children’s cognitive development, employing theoretical behavior change techniques to equip parents with skills and motivation to speak and engage more with their children. 

Children in this 12-week program wear the Language Environment Analysis system, or LENA, a small device that records up to 16 hours of the words they hear and speak throughout the day, as well as the amount of television they watch. Researchers visit the families’ homes weekly to give parents feedback on their recording numbers and discuss and practice language input techniques. This combination of quantitative and qualitative feedback motivates parents to speak and interact more with their children. 

Parents involved in the program say that the encouragement to talk also has strengthened their parenting skills. “This program really helped me develop a lot of skills to be a good mom to him. It’s not even all about learning how to count and read. It helps you build social skills with your child, and that is priceless,” says one mother, who has four children — ages 3, 10, 14 and 16.

“I am a way better parent now.”

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