The message that it’s critically important to later learning for parents and caregivers to speak, sing and read to young children has hit prime time.

Two popular TV shows, Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” and ABC Family’s “The Fosters,” have recently featured characters talking about the cognitive gains that come from talking to children. Both characters are moms who have recently learned about what’s known as the “word gap” between children from low-income backgrounds and those from wealthier backgrounds.

This new spotlight on early childhood development in pop culture is no accident. Writers from both shows were approached by and worked with staff from the Too Small to Fail initiative, which is focused on spreading the message that talking to children in the early years is a key to future school success.

“As America’s preeminent storyteller, Hollywood can entertain (audiences) but can also educate them about social issues,” said Patti Miller, the director of Too Small to Fail for the Clinton Foundation.

Led by the Clinton Foundation and San Francisco-based Next Generation, which advocates for public policies that support early childhood, the initiative has several messaging strategies, including traditional public service announcements and a partnership with the Spanish-language TV network Univision.

Click to enlarge this chart demonstrating the results of the Hart and Risely vocabulary study that showed a large gap between the number of words heard per hour by children of professional parents and parents on welfare. Extrapolated out, researchers calculated a gap of more than 32 million words.

Source: Betty Hart & Todd Risely, 1995

The Hart and Risely vocabulary study showed a large gap between the number of words heard per hour by children of professional parents and parents on welfare. Extrapolated out, researchers calculated a gap of more than 32 million words.

“Unfortunately, too many of our youngest children are not getting enough of that opportunity” to interact with their parents and caregivers, said Hillary Clinton during a recent visit to Oakland to promote the Talking is Teaching campaign, which is an offshoot of the larger Too Small to Fail initiative.

Research shows that children growing up in families on welfare hear 30 million fewer words than those growing up in professional families. Luckily, Clinton said, that’s a problem that can be solved for free if the message that it’s important to speak to infants – in any language, about anything – gets out to the wider public.

“We want parents and caregivers to feel that starting today, they can help (their children),” Clinton said.

And the former first lady, senator and secretary of state is willing to get that message to parents in whatever format speaks to them. Which is why she and her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, met with Hollywood writers and producers, first in November and then again in June, asking them to include the message in their shows. The results were seen as new seasons of those shows hit the airwaves.

In “Orange Is the New Black,” a show about a women’s prison in upstate New York, an incarcerated mom exhorts her taciturn partner to overcome his shyness and speak to their daughter.

“You have to talk to her, like, all the time,” Maria, the mom, tells him during visiting hours at the prison. “There’s all these studies that say if you don’t talk to the baby they end up f****d by the time they’re 5. Talk to her. Sing to her. I know you don’t like to talk, but you gotta do it for her.”

“We want parents and caregivers to feel that starting today, they can help (their children),” said Hillary Clinton.

In “The Fosters,” the mom-to-be is Lena Adams, an assistant principal at a charter school in a stable marriage with her longtime partner. She’s reading a book one night as the couple get ready for bed and comes across a description of the word gap.

“Basically, your entire ability to learn is wrapped up in how many words you hear in the first years of your life,” Adams tells her wife, Stef Foster.

“Makes sense,” Foster responds. “But with the two of us for moms, I don’t think our child is going to have anything to worry about.”

When asking writers to consider adding a particular message to their scripts, it’s important not to “beat them over the head” with it, said Greg Propper, a partner with Propper Daley, the social impact agency in Los Angeles that coordinated the Too Small to Fail team’s Hollywood outreach.

“All we ever ask of content creators is just to let us educate them on the issue,” Propper said. “We don’t pretend to be the creative ones. Hopefully we inspire them to figure out creative ways to reach their audience.”

Shows featuring families with infants or young children are ideal vehicles for this particular message, but there are countless ways to work the message into a script, Propper said. For example, two adult characters could get to the topic when talking about how they were raised, or a doctor or teacher character could pass along the information while interacting with a new parent.

“Orange Is the New Black” and “The Fosters” won’t be the last shows to feature the idea that it’s important to talk and sing to young children. Propper said he expects the message to make an appearance in other shows during the fall season, though he wouldn’t reveal which ones.

Harnessing the power of TV shows to do more than just entertain audiences is not a new idea, said Scot Guenter, an American studies professor at San Jose State University. Though not necessarily the result of an organized, outside campaign like Too Small to Fail, TV producers and writers have included moral and informational messages for their audiences going back to “Leave It to Beaver,” which aired in the late 1950s.

“Popular culture not only reflects what’s going on in society but it affects what’s going on in society,” Propper said,

From normalizing gay and lesbian relationships to introducing the idea of a designated driver after a night of drinking, TV shows have long used their characters to do more than just entertain their audiences, he said.

“The idea is that a really captivating storyline makes viewers lose track of time and see characters as beloved family members,” Propper said. Including public service-type messages in TV shows “is a particularly effective way to reach someone in a moment where they are suspending disbelief and receptive to new ideas,” he said.

“The idea is that a really captivating storyline makes viewers lose track of time and see characters as beloved family members,” Propper said. Including public service-type messages in TV shows “is a particularly effective way to reach someone in a moment where they are suspending disbelief and receptive to new ideas,” he said.

Studies have shown that such messages have the power to make a demonstrable difference in viewer behavior. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research on the effect of the MTV documentary-style show “16 and Pregnant” found that Google searches and Twitter messages about birth control and avoiding pregnancy increased among viewers immediately after new episodes aired. Researchers were also able to determine that the changed behavior “ultimately led to a 5.7 percent reduction in teen births in the 18 months following (the show’s) introduction.”

“The finding that ‘16 and Pregnant’ had an impact suggests that MTV drew in teens who actually were at risk of teen childbearing and conveyed to them information that led them to change their behavior,” the report concluded. “Typically, the public concern addresses potential negative influences of media exposure, but this study finds it may have positive influences as well.”

Miller, with Too Small to Fail, hopes their campaign will create a similar positive influence.

“While it’s troubling that we have this word gap, the good news is that the solution is fairly straightforward and simple,” Miller said. “If parents spend time talking, reading and singing with young children, that can help close the gap.”

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  1. Moloko Slivki 1 year ago1 year ago

    Thanks for the information.
    It is a clear statistical graphs.

    We are surprised at the huge difference in quantity of words.

    We need to solve this problem.

  2. bee 2 years ago2 years ago

    I teach psychology at the high school level. I am constantly talking to my young people about the importance of early childhood stimulation. I keep after them telling them that they are the next group of parents and it is up to them to raise the children of the future. They look at me like I have two heads. Unfortunately some of them will be parents in less than two years. I am glad … Read More

    I teach psychology at the high school level. I am constantly talking to my young people about the importance of early childhood stimulation. I keep after them telling them that they are the next group of parents and it is up to them to raise the children of the future. They look at me like I have two heads. Unfortunately some of them will be parents in less than two years. I am glad that the TV shows are stressing the idea of stimulation to infants. Kids today get more information from TV and the internet than from their own parents or from teachers. Maybe if they see it on TV they will remember it and we can discuss this in class. I too, taught my son to read before he started to school. Everything in the house was labeled. He was reading as he was learning to talk. For instance the refrigerator had a sign that said “refrigerator” he could say refrigerator and then we took the signs off the refrigerator, chair, table, etc. and he could sit at age 12 months and identify the signs correctly. He could read magazines before he started to kindergarten. He read an article in Parents Magazine and came in and threw the magazine on the table and said, “You lied to me momma.” The article was about whether you should tell your children about fantasy figures like Santa and the Easter Bunny. He read this and understood what he had read. My son is not a genius but we did play word games with him from the very beginning of life. Early stimulation is where we all begin.

  3. Floyd Thursby 1941 2 years ago2 years ago

    I think talking is good but reading is most important. My kids knew to say every letter when presented it before turning 2, had read a 100-page book before starting Kindergarten. I think the word use is important, you have to spend time with your kids, talk to them, sing, but also read as it forces you to use words you wouldn't normally use. However, it's presented as an easy solution and … Read More

    I think talking is good but reading is most important. My kids knew to say every letter when presented it before turning 2, had read a 100-page book before starting Kindergarten. I think the word use is important, you have to spend time with your kids, talk to them, sing, but also read as it forces you to use words you wouldn’t normally use. However, it’s presented as an easy solution and there is no easy solution. Parents need to spend many hours they now spend on TV, games, sleeping, teaching their kids math and reading, especially before they turn 5 as you don’t get a second chance. It’s also important for children to learn that while much learning is fun, when it isn’t fun, you have to work just as hard at it as willingness to sacrifice and do what you don’t wish to is necessary to becoming an admirable and successful person and the more you work at it the more interesting it becomes. Asians are great at this and focus on pre-K education and developing the rigid work ethic which works regardless of mood. This is why the end result is 33.5% qualifying for a UC vs. under 10% of whites now, within California. Walking around a UC leads many to believe whites aren’t doing as bad as they are in school, but most non-Hispanic whites at UCs come from other states, and it’s California’s reputation, particularly UCLA and UC Berkeley but also several others, which leads to this. If you actually looked only at in-state residents, it would be more clear that the Asian methods of childraising, including words and reading at a young age, really are a choice parents must make if they want their kids to make a UC. This is a step in the right direction but only a step. These are the facts, and they are undisputed.