Thirty million words - that is how many fewer a child from a poor home would have heard by the age of four, compared with children whose parents are professionals.
A landmark study in the 1990s by two American psychologists which discovered this lack of exposure to language found that it affects a child's entire life.
Moved by the research, University of Chicago paediatric surgeon Dana Suskind, who will be speaking at The Straits Times Education Forum on June 27, started a programme to close the gap for disadvantaged children in Chicago. Her programme, called The Thirty Million Words Initiative, encourages parents to talk more and provide a rich language environment for their children.
"The study found that it's not just the number of words that made a difference, but also the type of words and whether they were encouraging. Parent talk is critical in building a foundation for learning in a child," said Dr Suskind.
Joining her at the forum will be Dr Stuart Brown, another renowned expert in early childhood development. But while Dr Suskind's expertise is on talk, Dr Brown, who heads the National Institute for Play in California, will speak on the importance of getting children to play.
Mrs Carmee Lim, former principal of Raffles Girls' School, will be the third speaker.
Mrs Lim, who is mentor principal at MindChamps Holdings, has become an ardent advocate for creative education. She will explain how music and moving to a beat help children develop more than just motor skills.
"It is related to brain growth and even development of maths and speech skills," said Mrs Lim.
Highlighting the forum's focus on early childhood development this year, The Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez said: "Last year, the Education Minister Heng Swee Keat spoke on the importance of going beyond grades and exams, to giving our children a more all-rounded education.
"We wanted to build on this, by looking at just how parents could do so, from an early age, to foster a natural curiosity and love for learning and reading in their children."
Philanthropic organisation Lien Foundation is the presenting sponsor of the forum, with POSB Bank as a partner.
Lien Foundation's chief executive Lee Poh Wah noted that the issue of early education has gained prominence in recent years.
He said: "Like The Straits Times, the foundation wants to support young parents struggling to keep up in a hurried, future-obsessed society, by using cutting-edge insights from brain and behavioural science on how the early years can influence their children's outcomes."
He said the foundation was keen to have Dr Suskind share her experience in helping to close the achievement gap for poor children.
"There is an urgent need for our policymakers here to find fresh solutions for pre-schoolers from low-income homes who are falling behind their peers, even before Primary 1," he said.
The Straits Times' inaugural education forum last year was attended by 300 parents. The forum this year will be held at the Raffles City Convention Centre.
Registration opens on Tuesday. To register, go to http://www.straitstimes.com/st-education-forum-2015
This article was first published on May 24, 2015.
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