Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

From the Word Gap to the Digital Divide

Words matter. Experts believe many children from low-income households are exposed to 30 million fewer words than their middle and upper-class peers by the time they enter school.

Hudson on the iPad

As stunning as that statistic is, what will the gap be between children who have or don’t have access to use and master digital tools at an early age? Will it mean the digital divide grows deeper? Will it signal an even greater achievement gap?

These questions arose while watching my 2-year-old grandson Hudson deftly maneuver an iPad, using hand motions to look for and play his favorite games. When I went to school, students were taught handwriting in grade school, use of a calculator in middle school and typing in high school.

What is the  impact of a child hearing 30 million fewer words in their formative years? Think about what kinds of words may be absent – words from storybooks, affirming words from parents, playful word exchanges at family outings, words they hear on radio and television.

Being poor doesn’t mean children are ignored. Parents  working more than one job to make ends meet may not be as eager or able to tell a good night story to their youngster. They may fall asleep before their child does.

If there is a 30-million-word gap for youngsters, how many light years difference is there in digital capability?

Manipulating a tablet isn’t a guarantee of life success. But it is a notable advantage in navigating the ever-expanding digital world and the knowledge it holds.

Learning to use a computer or smartphone, which Hudson also can do, may be analogous to picking up a foreign language at an early age. There apparently are fewer engrained brain wires that inhibit a young child’s ability to absorb a skill, whether it is moving screens with a swish of the hand or rolling an “r” in Spanish.

Young children represent a fertile opportunity. They are sponges that can soak up knowledge, words and skills without the peer pressures that come along later.

But fertile opportunity can go fallow if not tended and tutored. What you miss learning at three can complicate your life at 13, 33 and 53. What you miss can make your life journey a perpetual chase to catch up. Some have the innate ability and fortitude to catch up. Many don’t and face the prospect of fewer well-paying employment choices, more insecurity and a continuing cycle of being left behind.

The fertile opportunity young people represent to prepare them for future life is precious. But is also fragile.

I see young Hudson absorbed in his techno-word, surrounded by older siblings and parents who talk to him and expose him to the wonders of the world.

Hudson is bright and his future looks promising, and I’m glad. I only wish his opportunity to learn the power of words and the vast expanse of the Internet could be shared by every young child, regardless of the income of his family.

This may be the only certain path to attack income inequality – while ensuring we don’t leave any natural talent untapped for lack of nurture.

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