January 7, 2014 garrygolden@gmail.com

Public Libraries and the Creepy Line Solutions to Shrinking the Word Gap

LENASummary: Public Libraries are the best positioned civic institution to help improve early childhood literacy (reading and writing) with a focus on reducing the  Word Gap – which refers to the estimated 30 million word differential experience of words heard from birth to 3 years old across a spectrum of affluent to poverty-stricken famlies.  This smaller vocabulary coupled with other stress inducers of poverty can impede the healthy brain development in young children that is critical for a lifetime of learning.  The challenge for libraries will be in confronting the range of possible creepy lines associated with scaling a technology-led, behavior change-focused effort needed to close the word gap and enable the positive development of young brains.

30 Million Words?
The Word Gap term grew out of research by University of Kansas child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley and a 1995 study which measured the differences in words heard by young children. (Details of Research here). The research was revisited in 2008 by LENA (short for Language ENvironmental Analysis) and essentially confirmed the findings that a typical gap that exists between lower and higher income families – from birth to 3 years old was estimated at 30 million words.

[Similiar word sensing assessments have been used in Autism screening.]

Why is the Word Gap a lever for the future?
Studies suggest that early literacy (reading-writing) is critical in brain development and social skills empowered by a greater ability to listen and communicate.  The healthy development of young brains is critical to a lifetime of learning and active engagement.

Despite its significant conclusions, the research has failed to gain mainstream traction as a lens for bringing positive social change.  It is a scientifically defensible human policy lever that remains far off the radar of most people. The relative low cost and return on investment (in financial or social capital) in the healthy development of young brains appeals to even the most bottom-line focused business leaders. Libraries could help to elevate the importance of early brain development through reading and face-to-face engagement. 

As a trusted institution with tremendous staff knowledge and experience in early childhood experiences, public libraries are well positioned to make a case for helping families recognize the importance of word-based experiences for their children.  Expectations need to be managed.  Libraries cannot solve all the complex problems that underlie poverty, but they can help create the conditions for parents and communities to understand the connection between words heard and early brain development.  

Making a case for new funds to public libraries would certainly invite controversy and push libraries to test the creepy line where technology creates amazing new capabilities that makes us feel uncomfortable around potential trade offs that challenge personal boundaries and social norms.   

There are two creepy lines to consider:

The Creepy Lines of Hardware the Listens:

In 2013, Providence Rhode Island won Bloomberg Foundation’s Mayor Challenge to develop an early literacy engagement strategy that would help reduce the community word gap.  The project included a plan to provide selected families with a portable device able to listen to the number of words heard by a child.  Feedback data from the device would allow parents to know how well their child was progressing in hearing a targeted number of words each day, week, month and year.

These types of sensing and listening devices raise concerns of privacy.  Namely, Are you going to record the conversations my child hears?  Things that I say to my spouse?

The device, developed by Boulder, Colorado based LENA (Language ENvironmental Analysis) does not record words or conversations – rather it only listens to the number of words spoken to, or around the child.  It can distinguish between words spoken by a human vs words coming from a television, computer or radio.

Yet the potential for abuse or misunderstanding will never disappear.  We are in the early days of our physical technology being rooted in ‘sense and listen’ capabilities.   Right now, the idea of having our phones listen to us – crosses the creepy line.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that we have already stepped into this strange future where the recording of web-based experiences and ebook-based behavior data is now readily available to publishers and software-device makers.  (Read: The eBook is Reading You WSJ, 2012).

The question for parents focused on shrinking the word gap will be – Does crossing a creepy line to raise awareness of my child’s progress in hearing words – present more benefits than the potential risks and trade offs?

There is a creepy line associated with library collections that include devices and/or software programs that can sense the world around its patrons.  Libraries might hold enough trust with patrons and communities to encourage this leap in embracing devices that listen (but do not record!)

The Creepy Lines of Changing Parenting Culture:
The second creepy line relates to how much libraries should shape culture and aim to change social norms of parenting and early childhood experiences.  Some believe libraries should stay away from influencing social conditions – they believe it should be ‘just books’.  Others see the role of libraries in creating an environment where anyone in a community can find the resources to thrive.

In reality, it has never been ‘just books’.   In the United States, public libraries have played a role in shaping community culture for much of their history.   Speak to older Americans from small towns and rural communities about their library experiences as a child and you are likely to hear about enriching moments that went far beyond checking out books.  Before the post WWII era of larger government social service agencies it was public libraries who played a critical role in areas such as health, wellness and parenting.

There are many cultural assimilation challenges baked into the idea of helping parents become more self-aware of the vocabulary environment within their homes — and places where their children live.  Research findings can be taken out of context or lead improper framing in the media where poor families are framed as bad parents when they are simply struggling to feed their families rather than focus on increasing the word count.

Libraries might possess the trust and open-door quality to parents — where they see an institution with programs and staff able to provide guidance and support as needed without the pressures that might come from a formal government agency or test-heavy school setting.

The intervention in parenthood also brings with it a sense of pedestal paternalism. Author Annie Murphy Paul captures the creepy line here in writing about the LENA device and Providene project:

“I find this completely fascinating, and also somewhat troubling. Recording parents’ speech to their children in order to show them that they are not talking to their children “enough” seems potentially rather intrusive and paternalistic.”

This is the essence of the creepy line– the fascinating capabilities of sensing technologies in changing outcomes are directly coupled with the need for more transparency and accountability.  We can easily see this dynamic playing out beyond listening for word-count into the quantification. Companies and health insurance companies are testing the creepy line with quantified self or self-tracking programs for health and wellness.

Closing the word gap will require radical solutions.  It is simply not enough to expect an education and awareness campaign to solve the problems.  The use of listening devices and parent engagement will create new creepy lines that require use to talk about the trade-offs and all the risks, rewards and new responsibilities of this new era.  The question for libraries will be how far do we step into the creepy zone


Learn More:

Companies such as You Tell Me Stories try to deliver parent solutions for improving early childhood reading and comprehension…


Video – a solid community level report on early literacy


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