30 Million Reasons to Listen, Learn and Grow

Research shows an at-risk child hears 30 million fewer words by age 3 than a child born into more affluent circumstances. Children’s Museum of Atlanta and the Atlanta Speech School are working with PNC to help parents and teachers close the vocabulary gap.

ATLANTA – If you are a parent, business owner or influential leader in Vine City or English Avenue, two of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods, Ashia Lee wants a word with you. Or maybe 30 million.

For more than a year, Lee has walked door-to-door recruiting people to be part of an effort to expand the vocabularies of local preschoolers. It’s a challenging sales job, but for Lee, this grassroots approach is part of her role at the Children’s Museum of Atlanta, where she's responsible for organizing a special program to engage and partner with the community in understanding the everlasting power of vocabulary for small children.

Lee is coordinator of the museum’s “Spread the Word” program. In 2015, with $1 million in funding from the PNC Foundation, the Children’s Museum and the Atlanta Speech School launched this multi-year program to help families and educators bridge the vocabulary gap in Atlanta’s rapidly improving Westside community.

Vocabulary development is a priority for PNC Grow Up Great, the $350 million, bilingual initiative that began in 2004 to help prepare children from birth to age 5 for success in school and life. In 2014, a new Guinness World Records® title for the largest vocabulary lesson was set by PNC with 2,845 preschoolers in 15 cities and the District of Columbia.

Fill the Word Gap

Research shows an at-risk child hears 30 million fewer words by age 3 than a child from a more affluent family, according to a 1995 study by University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley. An early start to reading and conversing with children improves the likelihood of them reading on level or better by third grade.

PNC provided funding to the Thirty Million Words Initiative to help parents build their children’s vocabularies and conduct a five-year longitudinal study of children from age 15 months to kindergarten. The company is also working with non-profits in 10 cities, including Atlanta, to fill the word gap.

The museum’s Lee said: “Our goal with this initiative is to create a community of communication and literacy by engaging kids, parents, teachers, community leaders and business owners to help build stronger vocabularies for their children before age 3.” 

woman reading with child
Atlanta's "Spread the Word" program is a collboration of the Children's Museum, Speech School and PNC

Parents: A Child’s First Teachers

Spread the Word mixes interactive field trips, mobile book drives, a book club and weekly family workshops to nearly 700 parents and kids. 

“When we began to consider the goal of eliminating the vocabulary gap in this specific community and working directly with families and the whole community, we believed the museum and the Atlanta Speech School could have an extraordinary impact together,” said Jane Turner, executive director, Children’s Museum of Atlanta.

The Museum partners with the Rollins Center of the Atlanta Speech School to empower parents to become conversational partners and advocates for their own children. Combining rich academic work with the Museum’s “learn through play” model, a multi-layered approach was developed to engage families as partners, as learners and as teachers to their children.

'Poverty isn't the reason children are not successful in school. It's the lack of access to meaningful and quality learning experiences that make the difference,' said Cori Cain, Rollins Center’s assistant director.

During the program’s family workshops at a local church, facilitators teach communications strategies to parents. The lessons are reinforced through unique family field trips that link new vocabulary words with family-friendly cultural attractions throughout the city.

“We teach parents how to support the development of their child's vocabulary by having meaningful back and forth conversations with them. We also help parents to use higher level vocabulary in their daily exchanges," Cain said. “For example, when a child asks their parent to help them tie their shoes, parents are encouraged to respond with phrases such as 'sure, I can ASSIST you with that.’”

Once a parent is intentionally aware their vocabulary influences their child, they can shift their child’s behavior in a positive way – and have fun at the same time. During a recent field trip to the Georgia Aquarium, Spread the Word families used workshop lessons to discuss mammals, wildlife, plants and other key words.

More Support in the Classroom

Spread the Word partners with local schools such as Bethune Elementary, Dean Rusk Headstart, Feed My Lambs and the Arthur Blank Family Youth YMCA. Crystal Gibson is a Birth to Third Grade facilitator in the Rollins Center for Language and Literacy at the Atlanta Speech School. Her primary role is to equip educators with language and literacy strategies that will empower children's voices and put them on a path to grade level reading. 

For Gibson, providing teachers with the right foundation for language interaction and vocabulary is critical to engaging the entire community. 

“Language development doesn't just happen at school. Our goal is to work with families and key organizations to create an entire language community,” Gibson said.

reading activity with children
PNC brought together 4,000 children in 37 cities to set a world record for the largest vocabulary lesson and bring attention to the importance of vocabulary development

Looking Ahead

Recently the Museum introduced a new Spread the Word vocabulary kiosk funded by a PNC Foundation grant. The kiosk has language games related to museum exhibits for the museum’s 200,000 visitors each year.

As the Spread the Word program expands to additional families in 2017, the museum team expects the benefit will grow too.

“We’re looking to engage and inspire families to take an active role in building vocabulary in young children by engaging the entire family and neighborhood,” Turner said. “We want to promote the understanding that enriching a child’s vocabulary is the potential key for success in life.”

Free resources from PNC Grow Up Great are available for parents and teachers.

Larry Perlmutter portrait
Crystal Gibson of the Rollins Center helps teachers to prepare effective vocabulary lessons

Words of Wisdom

PNCGrowUpGreat.com offers free resources to parents, children and teachers:

  • "Words Are Here, There and Everywhere" English/Spanish school readiness kits 
  • Digital storybooks from Sesame Workshop
  • Online Lesson Center with bilingual lesson plans for pre-school teachers