Thirty Million Words research reaches parents through book, programming

Prof. Dana Suskind’s research on how language affects children’s brain development is reaching the very population that can apply it in the real world: parents.

Suskind’s book, Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain, reached No. 1 on Amazon’s best-seller list for parenting and family reference, and the Thirty Million Words Initiative, which she founded, is sharing her evidence-based programming with broader audiences through several projects.

Suskind, professor of surgery and pediatrics, director of the Pediatric Cochlear Implant Program, and an investigator with the University of Chicago Institute for Translational Medicine, was inspired to further explore what she had discovered about child language development in her clinical experiences: She found a language gap existed between children of different socioeconomic statuses, and those at the lower status were hearing fewer words compared with their peers in middle- and upper-class environments.

Children in a lower socioeconomic class hear about 30 million fewer words by age 4 than their counterparts, according to a famous 1995 study. University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley discovered that children who heard more words were better prepared for school, and by third grade they had bigger vocabularies, were stronger readers and received higher test scores. The kids who started out ahead, stayed ahead. The kids who started out behind, stayed behind.

“My book translates the basic science of brain development in a way that parents can understand so they can ultimately change their children’s trajectories,” said Suskind. Through her research at the Institute of Translational Medicine, Suskind has shown that parental conversations with children will have a greater impact on children’s development than socioeconomic status or the parents’ education level.

The Thirty Million Words Initiative programming is currently reaching parents of newborns at the University of Chicago Medicine and Northwestern Memorial Hospital, who now have access to watching videos that highlight the research findings. Suskind also is working with the Chicago Public Library and Chicago Children’s Museum to launch related exhibitions, and in 2016, video segments for a Netflix series produced by the Jim Henson Company are scheduled to air.

Suskind received a National Institutes of Health CTSA Career Development Award through the Institute for Translational Medicine.

Funded through a grant from the NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, the Clinical and Translational Science Awards’ KL2 Career Development Program provides promising researchers at the start of their careers with salary support, research funding, mentoring and specialized training. The awards allow the researchers to gain important skills and eliminate competing priorities in order to focus on their research at a critical time when their ideas are still unproven and their scholarly reputations still unset.

“The grant gave me the bandwidth and space to think creatively, which has been a great gift,” Suskind said. “The Institute for Translational Medicine helped transform me and my research.”