Bright Spots are written and produced by the Campaign to showcase the work in Grade-Level Reading communities to make progress on school readiness, school attendance and summer learning by 2016. Continue reading below or download a PDF version.

Researchers have long known that low-income parents talk much less to their babies, which can slow literacy development. But why? More recent research suggests one answer: these parents do not know that talking to their babies is important.

Enter Let’s Talk®, an oral language development initiative in Fort Wayne, Indiana, that works to increase the quantity and quality of conversations between young children and their parents or caregivers in order to boost early learning and school readiness.

“Talking with your baby can help them grow an amazing mind,” says Dr. Jeanne Zehr, of the United Way of Allen County, a community leader for Fort Wayne’s grade-level reading campaign.

A 1995 study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley linked children’s early academic success to early verbal interaction with parents, documenting a huge gap in the number of words heard by low-income children vs. their wealthier peers that leads to developmental delays.

A 2008 study by Meredith Rowe found that differences by socioeconomic background in parents’ child development knowledge should be considered when addressing this issue. Middle-class parents got parenting information from experts while working-class parents relied more on advice from friends and relatives.

Fort Wayne’s effort to address the “30 million word gap” is among several, including in Georgia, Oakland, Seattle, Tulsa, Chicago and Providence. It was inspired by Let’s Talk developed by the Agenda for Children,  a public-private collaboration in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Designed to empower parents, it starts by emphasizing “talk,” noting that:  

  • Children with rich vocabularies are better prepared to read and learn in elementary school.
  • The quantity and quality of talk with young children develops their language, reading and writing abilities.
  • The amount of reading and talking parents do with their children tends to differ based on parents’ language, cultural background and economic status.

Launched in 2013, Fort Wayne’s effort targets new mothers in a leading hospital’s birthing centers. About 1,600 moms at Parkview Health have received a message and gift box with educational materials, a children’s book and a “Talk to me at bath time” washcloth from trained nurses. Moms learn to talk with, not at, their young child; to have back-and-forth conversations; and to talk often during daily activities in the language they speak best.

About 110 of these moms signed up to receive another gift and book in three months, plus a weekly text message with short-and-sweet talking tips. (When your baby says mama or dada, say the grown-up word. Make it into a sentence like “Yes, mommy is here.”) Another effort, Story Friends, focuses on at-risk 4-year-olds in child care centers. A volunteer reading program with a targeted audience and purpose — to boost the verbal skills and vocabulary of 4-year-olds identified as low language or English language learners — it has served about 120 children in seven child care centers.

During the school year, 40 volunteers work with three children weekly, one-on-one, for 20 minutes each. They read the same book for two weeks, encouraging the child to do the talking and to identify words from vocabulary cards. The child takes the book home and moves to another, eventually receiving 17 free books. The child’s classroom receives copies of the books.

Approximately 20 Burmese refugee parents who do not speak English were instructed to tell the book’s story in Burmese, but learn eight English words to use when discussing the book with a child. “It’s a win-win: they’re learning English and the child is learning English,” says Zehr.

Coordinated and funded by the United Way of Allen County, Let’s Talk funders include Parkview Community Health Improvement Program and PNC Bank. Other efforts, from neighborhood outreach to literacy home visits, will be added to reinforce the Let’s Talk message via a network of community partners. “All of this is to build language skills for children to enter kindergarten ready to learn,” says Zehr.

For more information, contact Jeanne Zehr at 260-469-4012 or Photos: Jason Miczek; Publication date: fall 2014

Want more? Check out how trail signs in neighborhood parks boost literacy skills in the youngest citizens and great infographics from First Things First in Arizona.

To nominate a community to be featured as a Bright Spot, please contact Betsy Rubiner at

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Betsy Rubiner is a writer and senior consultant with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

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  • Fantastic! Kudos to Fort Wayne for helping to lead the word gap movement -- and for their approach to working with refugee non-English speaking parents.
  • 17 books! That's a great library for any child.
  • This is a great program and a fine example of how to involve health partners in GLR efforts. Congratulations to Ft. Wayne!
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