Obama Lauds 'Talk With Me Baby' for Addressing Literacy Gap Facing Lower-Income Children

    • January 20, 2015
A mother and her son meet with a care coordinator.

Last month, when Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholar Ashley Darcy-Mahoney tuned in to the White House website to listen to President Obama deliver a speech on early childhood education, she discovered that he, in fact, has been listening to her.

In his speech, Obama singled out a Georgia program co-led by Darcy-Mahoney that aims to narrow disparities in academic achievement by increasing exposure to language for babies from low-income families. "Georgia," the president said, "is building on their successful preschool program by launching something called Talk With Me Baby, which sounds like an Al Green song but ... is actually a program to make sure language learning begins at the very first weeks of a child’s life."

The presidential nod came as a surprise to Darcy-Mahoney, PhD, RN, NNP-BC, a neonatal nurse and an assistant professor of nursing at Emory University. "I was watching it in my office and I was like, 'Oh my Gosh! The president just mentioned our program!' It was one of those moments where you just say, 'Wow. This is so exciting!'"

Darcy-Mahoney and her colleagues, including the commissioner of health for the state of Georgia, created the public-private partnership in 2013. It aims to narrow the "word gap" that exists between lower-income infants and children and their peers from families that are more economically secure.

Studies show that children from low-income families hear some 30 million fewer words in their first three years of life than children from higher-income families—a deficit that later affects the children's literacy, economic and health outcomes, she added. The quality and quantity of early exposure to language is, in fact, a better predictor of future academic achievement than factors such as parental income, the level of parent education, or ethnicity, she said.

A Simple Message

"Our message is simple: Talk with your baby," Darcy-Mahoney said, noting that 85 percent of an individual’s neurons are developed by age 3. "The more words that they hear as a baby, the smarter they become, and the better prepared they will be for reading by the end of third grade."

The White House has apparently gotten that message. Obama has identified "bridging the word gap" as a top early education priority, and his administration invited Darcy-Mahoney and about 50 other scholars, policymakers, and researchers to an October summit on the subject. In August 2014, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conducted a webinar about the Talk With Me Baby program. And the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has posted blogs—one in June and one in December—about it, too.

"We knew President Obama knew about Talk With Me Baby, but my colleagues and I  were still surprised and excited to see that he highlighted this state initiative in his December speech," Darcy-Mahoney said, noting that the presidential-level attention has helped generate publicity for the program.

Several other initiatives are also aimed at narrowing the "word gap," but Talk With Me Baby is unique because it trains nurses—the nation’s frontline health care providers—to educate parents and caregivers about the importance of language in early childhood development. The program is sponsored by the United Way of Greater Atlanta and the U. S. Department of Agriculture.

Nurses are in a key position to raise awareness about early language exposure, Darcy-Mahoney said. They are the largest segment of the health care workforce, and nursing is consistently ranked as the most trusted profession. Moreover, more than 99 percent of expectant and new parents and their children are seen by nurses.

"We aim to get nurses on-board delivering this message to families during their babies' first year of life," Darcy-Mahoney said. The program also educates nutritionists who work for the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) supplemental food program and will later phase in early education professionals and other health care providers.