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Behavioral Genetics
Exam
Instructions: Please read the instructions and the questions carefully and answer them,
including Question 1. In each answer, please separate the subheadings (that start with
letters) from one another so that I know exactly what you’re answering in each section of
your response. Be sure to read the entire question before starting writing.
I will also send the PowerPoint for all lectures, in case you need some review!
1) To answer this question, please read the following article published in 2015 in The New
Yorker. Note that the repeated references to the Hart and Risley (1992) paper that we
discussed in class. Please read at least up through the horizontal line I’ve put in, but I’ve put
in the whole piece for the curious. After doing so, answer the questions below.
a) What is the most important implicit assumption, based upon the published work
cited, made throughout this essay?
b) Based on the work showing correlations between parental verbal behavior and
achievement in offspring, should we support government interventions to modify
verbal interactions between parents and children? Why or why not? (NOTE: I
realize you could spend pages on this, but it’s worth only 5 points, so please be brief
– a few sentences!)
c) Please discuss how you would better design a study to assess factors influencing
child speech development (both environmental and genetic). Be fairly detailed:
what groups and populations would you need to include, over what ages of children,
and what dependent variables would be part of your study?
d) After completing your experiment, what would you know about factors
influencing language development? How would you know that: in other words,
what aspects of your design and results would tell you about sources of variance in
child language development?
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Annals of Education
January 12, 2015 Issue
The Talking Cure
The poorer parents are, the less they talk with their children. The mayor of Providence is
trying to close the “word gap.”
By Margaret Talbot
Kids in Providence’s program wear a device that records adult words, child vocalizations, and conversational
turns.Illustration by Leo Espinosa
One morning in September, Lissette Castrillón, a caseworker in Providence, Rhode Island,
drove to an apartment on the western edge of town to visit Annie Rodriguez, a young mother,
and her two-year-old daughter, Eilen. Castrillón and Rodriguez sat down on a worn rug and
spoke about the importance of talking to very young children. They discussed ways to cajole a
toddler into an extended conversation, and identified moments in the day when Rodriguez could
be chatting more with Eilen, an ebullient little girl who was wearing polka-dot leggings.
“Whenever she’s saying a few new words, it’s important to tell her yes, and add to it,” Castrillón
told Rodriguez. “So if she sees a car you can say, ‘Yes, that’s a car. It’s a big car. It’s a blue
car.’ ”
Eilen suddenly said, “Boo ca!”
Castrillón looked at her and said, “Right! Blue car! Good job!”
Rodriguez noted that Eilen had recently become so enthralled by an animated show, “Bubble
Guppies,” that she had become “stuck on that word ‘guppy.’ ” She went on, “Everything’s
‘guppy, guppy, guppy.’ So when she refers to something as ‘guppy’ I try to correct it—like, ‘No,
that’s not a guppy. That’s a doll.’ ”
“Guppy?” Eilen said, hopefully.
Castrillón said, “Well, I think right now the important thing won’t be so much telling her no but
just adding words and repeating them, so she’ll start repeating them on her own.”
Rodriguez is enrolled in a program called Providence Talks, the most ingenious of several new
programs across the country that encourage low-income parents to talk more frequently with
their kids. Once a month, Eilen wears a small recording device for the day, and the recording is
then analyzed. An algorithm tallies all the words spoken by adults in her vicinity, all the
vocalizations Eilen makes, and all the “conversational turns”—exchanges in which Eilen says
something and an adult replies, or vice versa. The caseworker who visits Rodriguez’s home
gives her a progress report, which shows in graph form how many words Eilen has been
hearing, and how they peak and dip throughout the day.
Castrillón presented Rodriguez with the month’s report. She leaned over her shoulder and said,
“See, this shows the percentage of adult words. There were over fifteen thousand words spoken
in that day.”
“Wow!” Rodriguez said.
Castrillón noted that significantly more conversation took place when the TV was off, and that it
had been off more that month than the previous one. “There was pretty high electronic sound
last time,” she said. “This time, there was very little.” Rodriguez nodded, studying the printout.
In the nineteen-eighties, two child psychologists at the University of Kansas, Betty Hart and
Todd Risley, began comparing, in detail, how parents of different social classes talked with their
children. Hart and Risley had both worked in preschool programs designed to boost the
language skills of low-income kids, but they had been dissatisfied with the results of such
efforts: the achievement gap between rich and poor had continued to widen. They decided to
look beyond the classroom and examine what went on inside the home. Hart and Risley
recruited forty-two families: thirteen upper, or “professional,” class, ten middle class, thirteen
working class, and six on welfare. Each family had a baby who was between seven and twelve
months old. During the next two and a half years, observers visited each home for an hour
every month, and taped the encounters. They were like dinner guests who never said much but
kept coming back.
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In all, Hart and Risley reported, they analyzed “more than 1,300 hours of casual interactions
between parents and their language-learning children.” The researchers noticed many
similarities among the families: “They all disciplined their children and taught them good
manners and how to dress and toilet themselves.” They all showed their children affection and
said things like “Don’t jump on the couch” and “Use your spoon” and “Do you have to go potty?”
But the researchers also found that the wealthier parents consistently talked more with their
kids. Among the professional families, the average number of words that children heard in an
hour was twenty-one hundred and fifty; among the working-class families, it was twelve hundred
and fifty; among the welfare families, it was six hundred and twenty. Over time, these daily
differences had major consequences, Hart and Risley concluded: “With few exceptions, the
more parents talked to their children, the faster the children’s vocabularies were growing and
the higher the children’s I.Q. test scores at age 3 and later.”
Hart and Risley’s research has grown in prominence, in part because large-scale educational
reforms like No Child Left Behind have proved disappointing. Addressing the word gap by
coaching new parents sounds like a simpler intervention. Last year, Hillary Clinton announced a
new initiative, Too Small to Fail, that emphasizes the importance of talking to infants and young
children; in the fall, President Barack Obama convened a White House conference whose goal
was to “bridge the word gap and put more young people on the path to success.” Other cities,
including Cambridge, Massachusetts, have initiated programs similar to the one in Providence,
and still others have begun public-awareness campaigns with radio spots and bus-shelter signs
reminding parents to talk frequently to their kids. The notion of the word gap even turned up on
“Orange Is the New Black,” when one of the inmates urged her boyfriend to talk with their new
daughter, because “there’s all these studies that say that if you don’t talk to the baby they end
up, like, fucked by the time they’re five.”
The way you converse with your child is one of the most intimate aspects of parenting, shaped
both by your personality and by cultural habits so deep that they can feel automatic. Changing
how low-income parents interact with their children is a delicate matter, and not especially easy.
Lissette Castrillón was sensitive to the challenge, and she had an appealing informality: she
listened carefully to Rodriguez, praised her efforts, and said admiring things about Eilen, all
while sitting cross-legged on the floor. But, perhaps inevitably, there was an awkward moment.
Castrillón had brought an iPad with her, and she played for Rodriguez a video of a mother
shopping at the grocery store while her toddler sat in the cart—just to show, Castrillón
explained, that you could “talk aloud when you’re pretty much doing anything.” The mother
onscreen was blond and fit, and wore white jeans; she looked like a character in a Nancy
Meyers movie, and her patter was so constant that it became wearying. “Here’s our crunchy
peanut butter, sweetheart!” she trilled, scanning an aisle filled with organic food. “Here’s the
Wild Oats one. Roasted almond butter. Crunchy. Let’s get crunchy, Bubba.” The cart was piled
high, and the items looked expensive. “Bubba, we’re running out of room. What are we going to
do? Did Mommy buy too many groceries today? I think we should get the creamy, too, because
Murphy does not like when I get that crunchy. And we like to have the peanut butter because
peanut butter’s good for you. It’s got protein.”
Rodriguez watched the video with a serious expression. It was hard to imagine her holding forth
with such preening gusto in the organics aisle. Castrillón said, “Well, you know, just—whatever
the food is you’re buying, you can talk about color, shape, and texture.”
In 2012, the mayor of Providence, Angel Taveras, heard about the Mayors Challenge, a new
competition being offered to cities that proposed a bold idea for making urban life better. The
prize was to be given by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the foundation started by Michael
Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, on the premise that cities are “the new laboratories of
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democracy.” The city that won the grand prize would receive five million dollars to realize its
project, and four other cities would be given a million each. As Taveras recalled, “They
announced that challenge on Twitter, and right away I said, ‘We’re going to go for it.’ And I didn’t
know exactly what it would be at the time, but I knew it was going to be on early-childhood
education.”
Taveras’s focus was not unusual: these days, everyone from preschool teachers to politicians
talks about infant brain development, and toy companies tap into parental anxiety about it. But
Taveras had a personal investment in the subject. He is the son of immigrants from the
Dominican Republic, neither of whom went beyond the eighth grade. He grew up in Providence,
and his mother, Amparo, who raised him largely on her own, worked factory jobs to support him
and his two siblings. When he was four, Amparo enrolled him in a local Head Start program,
and he felt that it had made a decisive difference in his life. He went on to Providence public
schools, and then attended Harvard University and Georgetown law school. Taveras calls
himself the “Head Start to Harvard” mayor, and he still has his graduation picture from the
program. “I wore a cap and gown, and it was so special for me,” he recalled.
In 2010, at the age of forty, Taveras became the first Latino mayor of Providence, a city that is
nineteen per cent Latino, mostly Dominican. Tall and skinny, with rimless eyeglasses, Taveras
is nerdier and nicer than you might expect of a Providence mayor. One of his predecessors,
Buddy Cianci, was twice convicted of felonies while in office: once for racketeering, and once for
assaulting a man—using a lit cigarette and a fireplace log—who was dating his ex-wife.
Taveras, by contrast, wrote a children’s book called “How to Do Well in School” and seems
genuinely to enjoy mayoral duties like dropping in for “story time” at a local library.
One day, while Taveras was mulling over what to propose for the Bloomberg competition, his
policy director, Toby Shepherd, told him about Hart and Risley’s research—including their
calculation that a poor four-year-old has heard thirty million fewer words from his parents than a
wealthy one has.
That number had attracted a lot of attention in the press—to the point that Hart and Risley’s
study was sometimes faulted for an overemphasis on the sheer quantity of words. But Taveras
learned that Hart, who died in 2012, and Risley, who died in 2007, had also identified important
differences in kinds of talk. In the recordings of the professional families, they found a “greater
richness of nouns, modifiers, and past-tense verbs,” and more conversations on subjects that
children had initiated. Catherine Snow, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education,
who studies children’s language development, told me that these findings made sense, since
quantity was often a proxy for quality. “Families that talk a lot also talk about more different
things,” Snow said. “They use more grammatical variety in their sentences and more
sophisticated vocabulary, and produce more utterances in connected chains.” Such parents,
she noted, “don’t just say, ‘That’s a teapot.’ They say, ‘Oh, look, a teapot! Let’s have a tea party!
There’s Raggedy Ann—do you think she wants to come to our tea party? Does she like sugar in
her tea?’ ” Parents who talk a lot with their young children ask them many questions, including
ones to which they know the answer. (“Is that a ducky on your shirt?”) They reply to those
devilish “Why?” questions toddlers love with elaborate explanations. Erika Hoff, a
developmental psychologist at Florida Atlantic University, has published studies about early
language development whose results are similar to those of Hart and Risley. She recalled
marvelling at “the young professor mothers” at a university childcare center: “Everything was a
topic of conversation. If they had to get out of the building in case of a fire, they’d be so busy
discussing the pros and cons with their toddlers that I kind of wondered if they’d make it.”
Among the more affluent families studied by Hart and Risley, a higher proportion of the talk
directed at children was affirming, which was defined to include not just compliments like “Good
job!” but also responses in which parents repeat and build on a child’s comments: “Yes, it is a
bunny! It’s a bunny eating a carrot!” In those families, the average child heard thirty-two
affirmations and five prohibitions (“Stop that”; “That’s the wrong way!”) per hour—a ratio of six to
one. For the kids in the working-class families, the ratio was twelve affirmatives to seven
prohibitions, and in the welfare families it was five affirmatives to eleven prohibitions. Hart and
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Risley included one extended description of a mother from the poorest group, at home with her
twenty-three-month-old daughter, Inge:
The mother returns; Inge sits on the couch beside her to watch TV and says something incomprehensible.
Mother responds, “Quit copying off of me. You a copycat.” Inge says something incomprehensible, and her
mother does not respond. Inge picks up her sister’s purse from the couch. Her mother initiates, “You better get
out of her purse.” Inge continues to explore the purse and her mother initiates, “Get out of her purse.” Inge does
not answer; she begins to take coins out of the purse and put them on the coffee table. Her mother initiates,
“Give me that purse.” Inge continues to put coins on the table. Her mother initiates, “And the money.” Inge does
not answer but gives her mother the purse.
Hart and Risley noted that the mother was “concerned” and “affectionate” toward her child. Inge
was dressed in nice clothes and fed consistently, and she was toilet trained; at one point, the
mother picked her up and kissed her. But she made “few efforts to engage the child in
conversation,” and did not “re-direct” Inge when she wanted her to stop doing something, or
treat exploratory misbehavior as a sign of curiosity rather than defiance. Most of what the
mother said to Inge was “corrective or critical.”
Hart and Risley also provided examples of various kinds of conversation—mostly, but not
exclusively, among the professional families—in which parents prompted and encouraged
children to talk:
The mother initiates, asking Calvin (24 months), “What did we do on Halloween? What did you put on your head
and on your body? What did you look like?” When Calvin does not answer, she tells him, “You were a kitty cat.”
Calvin says, “Wanna get. Where go?” His mother says, “What are you looking for? I know what you’re looking
for. What used to be on the door handle?” Calvin says, “Where?” His mother says, “The trick-or-treat bag. We
ate up all the candy already.” Calvin says, “Where the candy go?” His mother says, “It’s all gone in your tummy.”
Calvin says, “Want some.”
Mayor Taveras thought that such conversational strategies could be taught to new parents, and
decided to address the word-gap problem with the Mayors Challenge. “Head Start is awesome,”
he told me. “But we’ve gotta do something even before Head Start.” At the time, his wife was
pregnant with their first child, and he “was reading and talking to my daughter in utero. I decided
it can’t hurt. I’d come home and say, ‘It’s Daddy,’ and ‘How are you?,’ and everything else.”
Even though the Hart and Risley study had encompassed just a few dozen families, the
transcribing and coding of all those tapes had been laborious. New technology, Shepherd told
him, could make counting words much easier. In 2005, a research foundation named lena (for
Language Environment Analysis) had developed a small digital device that could record for
sixteen hours and recognize adult words, child vocalizations, and conversational turns. Such
distinctions were important, because researchers had determined that merely overheard
speech—a mother holding a child on her lap but talking on the phone, for instance—contributed
less to language development. The lena recorder could also distinguish between actual people
speaking in a child’s earshot and sounds from TVs and other electronic devices; children under
the age of two appear to learn language only from other humans. The device was about the size
of an iPod, and it fit into the pocket of a specially designed vest or pair of overalls. (Children
soon forgot about the devices, though they occasionally ended up in the toilet or in the dog’s
bed.)
lena’s device had been used in academic research on language development and in
interventions for hard-of-hearing, autistic, and developmentally delayed children. In 2009, a
Chicago surgeon named Dana Suskind, who specializes in cochlear-implant surgery for deaf
children, began using lena’s technology in a program called the Thirty Million Words Initiative,
which includes a study on the effects of encouraging low-income parents to talk more with their
children. Suskind had come across Hart and Risley’s research after noticing divergent
outcomes for her young patients. “Cochlear implants are truly a modern medical miracle,” she
said. “But, after the implantation surgery, some of the kids we saw were reading and speaking
on grade level, and others were much slower to communicate. The difference almost always
had to do with socioeconomic status.”
Taveras named his proposed project Providence Talks, and decided that technology would be
supported with counselling. During home visits w …
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