A new book by a University of Chicago Institute for Translational Medicine (ITM) investigator that shares her research into how children learn language was the No. 1 best-seller for parenting and family reference on Amazon on Oct. 18, just over a month after its release.
Dana Suskind, MD, University of Chicago Professor of Surgery and Pediatrics and Director of the Pediatric Cochlear Implant Program, released Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain Sept. 8 sharing how parents can propel the language skills of their children based on research that started at the ITM. Since its release, Suskind’s work has been highlighted in national media, ranging from The Washington Post to National Public Radio (NPR) to USA Today.
“My book translates the basic science of brain development in a way that parents can understand so that they can ultimately change their children’s trajectories,” said Suskind, who shows that a parent having conversations with a child will have a greater impact on that child’s development than socioeconomic status or the parent’s education level.
Programming she and her teams have built based on this science is now being implemented at large scales – parents of newborns at the University of Chicago Medicine and Northwestern Memorial Hospital watch videos highlighting her findings, and she is working with the Chicago Public Library and Chicago Children’s Museum to launch related exhibits. And in 2016, video segments for a Netflix series from the Jim Henson Company are scheduled to air.
Her innovative research began when she received one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) CTSA Career Development (KL2) Awards through the ITM.
Funded through a grant from the NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), the Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) Career Development Program provides promising researchers at the start of their careers with salary support, research funding, mentoring, and specialized training. The awards allow them 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. For a young scientist like Suskind, these awards can be a catalyst that accelerates their career.
“The K Grant gave me the bandwidth and space to think creatively, which has been a great gift,” the former KL2 Scholar said. “The ITM helped transform me and my research.”
Almost ten years ago, Suskind started performing pediatric cochlear implant surgeries and noticed profound differences in how her patients were learning to talk and read.
Some children would be on par with their hearing peers, and some would not.
Suskind’s clinical experience with her patients inspired her to examine the language gap between children of different socioeconomic statuses. She discovered that children in a lower socioeconomic class were hearing fewer words compared with their peers in middle- and upper-class environments.
Children in a lower socioeconomic class hear about thirty million fewer words by age four 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.
With the help of her ITM KL2 Award, Suskind developed a greater understanding of the reasons why language affects brain development.
“I was able to better understand the basic science of child brain development and better see the impact of language,” said Suskind, who went on to found the Thirty Million Words® Initiative that shares her evidence-based programming.
The ITM provided Suskind with her first start-up funding for the TMW-Home Visiting intervention that coached parents on ways to build their child’s language skills. She tested it in a small-scale randomized control trial with low-income families in Chicago.
“To understand the power of language, you have to understand how a baby’s brain develops,” Suskind said. “Words are nutrition for the brain, and the key to creating neural development is language.”
The study showed significant impact on the quality and quantity of parental language input.
Parents increased their word count by about 40 percent per hour. The number of exchanges between adult and child increased by nearly 60 percent. Children’s vocalizations increased by about 40 percent.
The result of this research and Suskind’s KL2 award led to a large grant from PNC Grow up Great and support from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago: Ready to Learn!, Chicago Public Schools (CPS), The Chicago Department of Family & Support Services (DFFS), and University of Chicago Medicine for a longitudinal study to examine the impact of the TMW-Home Visiting intervention on parent-child engagement, parents’ understanding of child development, children’s school readiness, and their emotional and language development.
Working one-on-one with low-income families of young children and through a multimedia curriculum, parents in this study are learning strategies for maximizing children’s early language development using the TMW 3Ts: Tune In and respond to what their child is communicating; Talk More and build their child’s vocabulary with descriptive language; and Take Turns to engage their child in conversations and foster curiosity and knowledge. The study will follow a group of 200 children in Chicago from 15 months of age through kindergarten entry.
“The key to intelligence is parents talking and interacting with their children, but just knowing that doesn’t mean parents know how to do that,” Suskind said. “We have to help parents put that knowledge into play.”
Suskind said that some of her most powerful moments throughout her research career have been seeing families realize the power they have on their children’s future.
“I think there’s a misconception that literacy and socioeconomic problems are so entrenched, they can’t be solved,” Suskind said. “I hope my research ultimately shows that in fact change can occur and science can guide the way. In fact, science can be the basis for real social change.”
Some parents are already taking that to heart. Rosalinda Almanza, a 24-year-old mother, told USA Today that she enrolled in the current study with her 22-month-old daughter, Dahlia.
“They say the more you talk, the more words you use, the smarter they get,” she said. “It expands their minds.”
Suskind’s research has also been published in Communication Disorders Quarterly, Child Language Teaching and Therapy, Journal of Child Language, and Bridging the Early Language Gap: A Plan for Scaling Up.
Get your copy of Dana Suskind’s new book, Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain by clicking here.
Apply for your chance at the protected time and funding that helped launch Dana’s work. Submit an application by Jan. 15 to become a CTSA K Scholar through the NIH Career Development (K) Awards administered by the ITM.
By Emma Macmillan & Sara Serritella/UChicago ITM
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