How You Can Teach Just by Talking

Chippewa Valley effort aimed at filling “Word Gap” for toddlers

Tom Giffey

The “Word Gap” sounds like something that would trouble a headline writer or a Scrabble player. In reality, it’s the phrase used to describe the shortfall in the number of words that children who come from low-income families are exposed to by the age of 3. According to a much-cited study from the 1990s, in the first three years of life these kids hear an astonishing 30 million fewer words than their peers from higher-income homes. More recent research has even identified a vocabulary gap in kids as young as 18 months. Considering that the human brain has grown to 80 percent of its adult size by the age of 3, experts believe that this Word Gap can impact not only the size of children’s vocabularies but also their future academic success.

So if the Word Gap is truly a problem, what can be done about it? Talking is Teaching – a new educational campaign in the Chippewa Valley – is aimed at filling the Word Gap in the easiest and most fun way possible – by encourage parents and caregivers to talk, read, sing, and play with their kids. The more words these growing brains are exposed to, the better.

Talking is Teaching was recently launched by the United Way of the Greater Chippewa Valley and nearly 20 other community partners, including libraries, schools, childcare agencies, health providers, and others. It’s a local version of a national effort that’s been undertaken in cities from San Francisco to Miami. The Chippewa Valley is one of the first heavily rural locales that Talking is Teaching has been implemented, said Kari Stroede, director of the Successful Children’s Network for the local United Way.

“We call it a brief intervention: You can come in and support families in a really simple way, but in a way we know that works,” Stroede said. The Talking is Teaching movement is meant to be nonjudgmental: Instead of berating adults for not exposing their children to more language, it simply seeks ways to inspire them to talk to kids about anything – from the colors of fruits and vegetables in the supermarket to the sounds animals make.

“When I think of this movement, this campaign, I always use the phrase that it’s a sweet little movement,” Stroede added. “It’s so strength-based. It seems so easy, but it makes such a difference for children.”

So far, the local initiative has taken numerous forms. You may have seen Talking is Teaching signs popping up in yards and at community events. Public health nurses are talking about the campaign to families they visit. The Friends of the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library has included information about filling the Word Gap in material it gives to new parents as part of the “Books for Babies” program. The list will continue to grow. In addition, Stroede is hopeful that the national organization behind the effort, Too Small to Fail, will provide grant funding for “conversation starters” – brightly illustrated signs meant to encourage discussions between parents and kids – to be placed in Chippewa Valley grocery stories and other places where food is sold.

The partnership behind the local effort is already discussing ways to make the project sustainable over the long term, so expect the conversation about conversations to continue into the future. After all, the more words, the better.

To learn more about Talking is Teaching visit or