Word up: new initiative aims to give low-income children better chance at academic success by closing word gap

Half of Jefferson County, Kentucky, children lack the basic skills and knowledge to begin kindergarten. The PNC Foundation, Lift A Life Foundation, National Center for Families Learning (NCFL), Metro United Way’s Ready for K Alliance, and Louisville Metro recently announced a more than $250,000 collaboration to support Say & Play with Words, a new pre-Kindergarten vocabulary-building initiative. Say & Play with Words will target at-risk children in Louisville neighborhoods, with a goal of shrinking the word gap and increasing kindergarten readiness.

“Words unlock success for children,” said Chuck Denny, PNC regional president for Louisville.  “The more words they hear before kindergarten, the more success they often achieve. The link between ‘words’ and learning motivated PNC to begin emphasizing developing children’s vocabularies as part of PNC Grow Up Great®, our signature early childhood education initiative.”

The research is clear; preparing children for kindergarten starts from birth:

  • By age 4, low-income children are exposed to 30 million fewer words than children from high-income families.
  • Testing showed a child’s vocabulary use at age 3 predicted their vocabulary and reading skills in third grade.
  • First grade vocabulary measurement predicts about a third of reading comprehension in 11th grade.

“Say & Play with Words Louisville is a comprehensive strategy to better prepare our children for academic and life success,” said Sharon Darling, president and founder, NCFL. “Parents are their children’s first and most important teachers. By arming them with the right tools, families are strengthened, and we are able to break the generational cycle of poverty.”

During the initiative announcement on October 23, 2018, NCFL President and Founder Sharon Darling explains the importance of parents speaking with their children from birth.

Say & Play with Words will equip parents with free vocabulary-building tips and activities – found on SayandPlaywithWords.org – to use at home or on the go; build upon NCFL’s existing Family Learning efforts underway in Louisville; and, will provide training for professionals working with children and families.

PNC’s Senior Vice President, Director of Client and Community Relations Mike Moll talks with a family participating in an NCFL Family Learning program. Say & Play with Words will build upon NCFL’s existing Family Learning efforts underway in Louisville.

“Half of the children in this community are at an academic disadvantage before they even step foot in kindergarten,” said Theresa Reno-Weber, president and chief executive officer, Metro United Way. “And unfortunately, once they start behind, they often stay behind. However, parents and family members can change the course their children are on. Say & Play with Words will provide the resources to do just that.”

A Community Effort 

“Kids’ Spaces” will launch in area businesses later this year as a way to meet families where they gather. Local businesses can volunteer to host a “Kids’ Space,” which will provide easy access to resources for their customers. Examples of potential locations include the waiting room of a doctor’s office, nail salon, tire shop, barber shop, etc. – anywhere parents and children may spend time.  Businesses will be given Say & Play with Words signage and activity sheets that encourage young children and families to explore new words together. In addition, parents in NCFL Family Learning programs will be empowered as leaders in their communities by serving as Say & Play ambassadors.

Say & Play with Words materials

“We are proud to partner on this program, which sets the stage at the earliest level for better academic outcomes for our next generation,” Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said. “It’s critical for the future of our city that we make sure our babies are equipped for success in their academic career and eventually, to move on to a high-quality job.”

Development and outreach for Say & Play with Words Louisville is supported by Louisville Metro Government, Lift a Life Foundation and Ready for K Alliance. The PNC Foundation’s $250,000 grant supports development and outreach, as well as implementation at existing NCFL Family Learning sites. 

Say & Play with Words Louisville will replicate the success of a similar program in Detroit, also supported by PNC. Since 2014, more than 3,000 Detroit caregivers have received vocabulary-building resources each week in English and Spanish and their children heard 6,000 more words per week, on average. Say & Play with Words Detroit engaged nearly 100 businesses and trained staff at nearly 400 child care providers.

Follow Say & Play with Words Louisville on Facebook or visit SayandPlaywithWords.org for more information.