PNC taps Thirty Million Words to be part of multimillion-dollar language development initiative

The PNC Foundation has selected the University of Chicago Medicine Thirty Million Words program to be part of a $19 million initiative supporting early childhood language development. The multiyear grant was announced April 1 during PNC’s Grow Up Great 10th Anniversary celebration at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium.

Thirty Million Words is an evidence-based intervention that combines education, behavioral strategies and technology to help narrow the language gap between children from low-income and wealthier households. Through an interactive, multimedia curriculum, parents learn to enhance their home language environment to optimize their child’s brain development and ability to learn. Dana Suskind, professor of surgery and pediatrics and director of the Pediatric Cochlear Implantation Program, directs the TMW program.

Preliminary studies found parents and caregivers who participated in TMW spoke more and engaged in conversation more frequently with their children. The PNC Foundation grant will support a larger-scale, five-year longitudinal study following between 200 and 250 children from age 15 months to kindergarten to monitor vocabulary development and school readiness. 

“The Thirty Million Words Initiative is dedicated to harnessing the power of parent talk as a catalyst for change,” said Suskind. “Thanks to the generous support of the PNC Foundation, we will be able to evaluate the long-term impact of TMW on children’s vocabulary growth and school readiness. This partnership is one more example of PNC’s commitment to leveling the playing field for all children in this country.”

The PNC Foundation supports organizations that provide services for the benefit of communities in which it has a significant presence. The foundation focuses its philanthropic mission on early childhood education and community and economic development, which includes the arts and culture. Through Grow Up Great, its signature cause that began in 2004, PNC has created a $350 million, multiyear initiative to help prepare children from birth to age 5 to reach their full potential.

“Vocabulary is the cornerstone of a child’s learning,” said Scott Swanson, PNC Bank regional president for Illinois. “If we can narrow the vocabulary gap for at-risk children, we help increase their chances for success in school and life.”

The Power of Talk

In 1995, a study by child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley found that, by age 4, children in poverty had heard 30 million fewer words than their counterparts in more advantaged families. Children who had heard fewer words were not school-ready and continued to lag academically throughout their school years when compared to their more affluent peers. This disparity in learning is referred to as the achievement gap. Suskind founded TMW in 2010 to drive awareness of the critical role of spoken language in children’s early development and to arm parents and caregivers with the knowledge to give their children the best start in life.

TMW builds on what parents already do: talk with their children. During weekly home visits, parents learn about child brain development and the power of their language to enrich their child’s development. Through animation and video of real parent-child interaction, parents are taught easy-to-follow strategies to enhance linguistic interaction and foster the social and emotional development of the child. Working side-by-side with coaches, they also learn to set goals and monitor their progress. 

The Other Vocabulary Programs

The PNC Foundation’s $19 million initiative includes support for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street, and the launch of its bilingual vocabulary program “Words Are Here, There, and Everywhere.” In addition, a collaboration of Chicago community organizations will introduce an education program designed to help families develop positive routines and habits that support children’s vocabulary development.

PNC has also extended its early science learning program through 2015 to benefit preschool children in Big Shoulders Fund and Chicago Public Schools.

For more on TMW, visit To find out more about PNC’s work to support childhood education and development, visit