How might your life be different had you been exposed to millions fewer words in your home as a preschooler?
For children from low-income homes, that may not be a hypothetical question. At least one study has estimated that parents in middle- and high-income households use a minimum of four million more words around a child by age 3 than parents in low-income homes, according to Bowling Green State University doctoral student Emily Rusnak.
Rusnak, in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, has been looking at the effects of poverty on early language development—research that got a boost recently with the presentation of a $10,000 grant from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation. The former speech-language pathologist in southeast Michigan schools was among only seven graduate students nationwide to receive one of the awards for dissertation research.
If children aren’t exposed to some words in lower-income homes, “they’re not ready for school,” said Rusnak, who is designing a feasibility study to see if the effects of poverty-related risk factors on language development can be eased through a parent-training program.
If those children haven’t picked up what they need at home, they’re ill equipped to learn how to read at school, she added, noting that oral language development affects literacy skills.
Head Start is among the existing programs that attempt to combat the situation and, beginning next month, her dissertation project will constitute a new intervention program. Children in low-income households are affected by their families’ lack of resources, which may include such things as quality health care, day care, nutrition and housing, as well as finances, Rusnak explained. Parents dealing with those issues are stressed, may feel they can’t care for their children and may not talk to them as much, giving the preschoolers less stimulation, she said.
Her project targets areas where parents need support and will try to teach them to be more sensitive to their children’s language development needs, Rusnak continued. Over the nearly three-month study, they will receive information about, for instance, vocabulary and richness of words, language stimulation and creative conversations, plus child temperament and how preschoolers interact with others.
Researching poverty isn’t typical in her field, noted Rusnak, saying she has enjoyed her BGSU doctoral experience because of that flexibility in programming. “I’ve only had major benefits coming here,” said the Saline, Mich., resident, who holds a master’s degree in speech-language pathology from Eastern Michigan University and plans to receive her Ph.D. in communication sciences and disorders next August.