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Look who is talking, too

The innovative Providence Talks program reaches an important milestone and considers how to scale up

Photo courtesy of Providence Talks

Caitlin Molina, executive director of Providence Talks.

Photo courtesy of Providence Talks

A Providence Talks playgroup with parents, infants and toddlers.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 3/12/18
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PROVIDENCE – At a time when the Rhode Island Foundation is launching a new initiative, TogetherRI, to encourage people to speak out because they believe that their voices are not being heard by the larger community, a different kind of initiative, Providence Talks, a program which encourages language use by infants and toddlers with parents and caregivers, recently celebrated an important milestone in its efforts to create a different kind of engaged community around early education.

On Tuesday, Feb. 27, Providence Talks celebrated the milestone of reaching more than 2,500 children who have become participants in its innovative initiative to close what some educational experts say is a 30-million word gap on a citywide scale, in order to ensure that every child enters kindergarten ready to succeed.

The 2,500 participants represent about 20 percent of the city’s eligible population, according to city officials.

The Providence Talks program was developed as part of the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ inaugural Mayors Challenge in 2013, when Providence Talks was the grand prizewinner, receiving $5 million to support efforts to bring its innovative idea to life to solve urban problems and improve quality of life.

Now, five years later, Providence Talks has become part of the School of Continuing Studies at Roger Williams University, in partnership with Ready To Learn Providence. Mayor Jorge Elorza has allocated $500,000 in funding for the program in the city’s FY 2018 budget.

Under this new alignment, Providence Talks will continue to support Providence parents and caregivers in improving the language environment of their children at a time when brain development science indicates that language development is most critical, according to the news release accompanying the milestone celebration.

“Providence Talks provides parents and caregivers with an opportunity to transform the trajectory of their child’s education,” said Caitlin Molina, executive director of Providence Talks, in the news release, talking about the goal of preparing children for academic success in kindergarten and beyond. “We are proud to serve as a national model to cities around the world that wish to start their own efforts to close the word gap.”

Under its current program, Providence Talks offers three service delivery models to improve the language environment for infants and toddlers, one involving home visitation, a second involving a playgroup, and a third focused on professional development for early educators.

The service delivery model for early educators was launched in 2016, as a partnership between Providence Talks and Ready To Learn Providence, focused on improving the language development for children in early learning programs, both center-based and home-based, according to the news release. The program offers both English and Spanish and features the use of innovative technology to track, and measure, the language environment of classrooms.

More than 250 educators working with infants and toddlers in programs throughout the city have completed this professional development series, according to Leslie Gell, director of Ready To Learn Providence. “We know that educators are learning and implementing strategies that support language and literacy development, a critical component of kindergarten readiness and school success,” said Gell, in the news release. “They are also sustaining the practices, indicating that the beneficiaries are not only their current children, but children they will care for in the future.”

Employing a “talk pedometer” to measure results
As part of its innovative approach, Providence Talks has employed a new kind of technology, known as a “talk pedometer,” which has been supplied by LENA, a nonprofit foundation headquartered in Boulder, Colo., which has pioneered the use of a wearable device to count the number of words and conversational interactions children experience throughout the day.

Combined with well-trained coaches and quality measures, the use of this new technology provides parents and caregivers practical tips about how to enhance opportunities for meaningful engagement with their child during their day-to-day routine, according to Gell.

Providence Talks is committed to the goal of ensuring that every child, no matter their economic background, receives the supports necessary to enter a kindergarten classroom ready to succeed, according to Molina of Providence Talks. Molina said that some 60 percent of the children who have completed the Providence Talks program are hearing 50 percent more words than when the enrolled.

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Caitlin Molina, executive director of Providence Talks.

ConvergenceRI: How does the work of Providence Talks create a new kind of engaged community?
The original service model of the program was based initially on a visiting model. We expanded that to a second service model, creating a playgroup model. And, then we expanded to the program to include a third service model, focused on early educators.

The playgroup model offered parents and children the opportunity to come together in groups, with coaching and content-related materials.

The biggest learning curve for us has been to think through how can we better engage with parents. To do that, we have hired recruitment specialists, including those who have participated in the program, to engage with people where they are: at bodegas, at WIC offices.

ConvergenceRI: In the news release, it talks about having reached 20 percent of those who are eligible to participate in the program. How is that defined?
We are focused on those children who are at risk, as identified by the Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook. So, in reaching our milestone of enrolling our 2,500th participant, we have reached 20 percent of those eligible.

In 2013, Bloomberg first awarded its initial grant, and during the next two years, we enrolled 175 families in launching Providence Talks.

The 2,500 participants in 2018 included the ramp-up during the last three years.

Now that the [$5 million in] Bloomberg funding has ended, we are receiving $500,000 in city investments, with the projections of adding 300 children annually. The scale will decline, as the operating budget has decreased.

ConvergenceRI: Have you conducted an overall evaluation of the program to date, measuring its outcomes?
We are currently conducting an independent evaluation, working with the Brown School of Urban Education and Professor Kenneth Wong.

ConvergenceRI: I have heard educators describe that the optimum measure for healthiest development in infants and toddlers is to hear some 21,000 words a day? Is that accurate?
Yes, that’s correct; 21,000 words a day. That’s a lot to unpack. The 21,000 words a day are what are considered best for optimal brain development. Exposure to 15,000 words a day is considered what is needed for healthy development.

[The 30-million gap in words represents the deficit that many children will have when they enter kindergarten without some kind of intervention.]

In looking at the discussion between healthy vs. optimal word development and what are the tangible outcomes, our mindset is that it is not just how many words but the quality of the words and the comprehension of the language in the daily routine, not just the volume.

ConvergenceRI: Does the LENA talk pedometer measure the quality of the interaction? In my experience as a parent, there is often a sing-song kind of communication, a call and response, that occurs between parent and child, where the tonal qualities are very much part of the communication.
There are a lot of ways to engage in language development. One of our ways is through body language, gestures, and sign language. There are a lot of ways to communicate. It is really about person-to-person engagement.

ConvergenceRI: How inclusive does the network supporting early language development in infants and toddlers as well as parents and caregivers need to be?
Right now we often talk about prioritizing our work with the parents. But I recognize that because I have children under three years of age, a high quality day care learning center is really part of my extended family.

That is why we have chosen to add a service model looking at professional development, working with 250 early childhood educators, seeing them as part of an extended family, an extended community.

ConvergenceRI: What are the future challenges of your work?
The next piece will be how best to replicate this work in other cities, to serve as a national model, and to identify where our next funding will come from, by asking: How do we make this happen for other communities?

And, recognizing that parents, and caregivers, are the catalysts.


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