BOOKS ON MONDAY: Dr. Dana Suskind Talks about her new book and reading initiative, THIRTY MILLION WORDS

By Leslie Lindsay 30-million-cover-hi-rez

As a mother and someone who is very interested in childhood speech and language, Dr. Suskind’s book THIRTY MILLION WORDS (Dutton, September 8) is right up my alley. Not to mention that I currently live in Chicagoland (where she practices/teaches at the University of Chicago) –and we both seem to have ties to St. Louis. I should be clear though: we do not know each other, professionally or personally; our connection is merely serendipitous.

Her initiative, THIRTY MILLION WORDS is important–yet astoundingly simple–talk with your child. Today, I am honored and humbled to have Dr. Suskind with us. 

Leslie Lindsay: I’m always so interested in what sparks a writer to delve into her chosen topic. I understand you are a pediatric cochlear implant surgeon. What instigated your shift to the social and educational sciences?

Dr. Dana Suskind: As a cochlear implant surgeon, I soon discovered that a successful cochlear implant did not always ensure a child’s success in learning to speak or understand language. My search to understand why led me to encounter the concept of the 30 million-word gap. Research has shown that by their fourth birthday, children of lower socioeconomic status have heard about 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers. This profound disparity has a negative impact on everything from literacy to school readiness to academic achievement

As I mention in my book, taking the Hippocratic Oath meant that my obligation to my patients doesn’t end when I finish operating; it ends when my patients are well. I knew that it was time for me to step out of the comfort of the operating room into the wider world of social science in order to truly affect a change for our nation’s children. This book describes that transition and its result: the Thirty Million Words Initiative. What advice would you give to parents who are raising a child with hearing loss, whether it be mild, moderate, or severe?

Dr. Dana Suskind: It’s important to know that the brain development of a child who has moderate to severe hearing loss is the same as that of typically developing children. A rich early language environment makes all the difference.

L.L.: Let’s talk about the title of the book. Someone in a waiting room recently noticed the cover/title while I was reading, “So how long does it take to read thirty million words,” he asked.

Of course, I had to describe what that term really meant: a University of Kansas study showed that by age 4, kids from wealthy families had heard 30 million more words than low-income families. That’s HUGE! Can you talk about that, please? It’s not 30 million different words, but something else?

Dr. Dana Suskind: 30 million words is a metaphor for differences in early language environments. Parent responsiveness and the quantity and quality of parent-child interactions are what really matter – greater variation in vocabulary, more syntactic complexity, asking open-ended questions, eliciting a child’s response. 

L.L.: I love your stance on television, by the way. So many kids (and parents!) feel as if TV actually teaches, when in fact, it does not. A television does not tune in (views tend to “zone out,”), it does not talk more, and it does not take turns. These are your 3T’s. Can you tell us more about what the 3T’s really mean?

Dr. Dana Suskind: Sure. The first 3T, Tune In, is about making a conscious effort to notice, focus, and respond to what your child is communicating. A child who receives constant Tuning In is likely to stay engaged longer, initiate communication, and ultimately, learn more easily. Talk More is focused on building your child’s vocabulary with descriptive words. Take Turns is the most valuable for a child’s developing brain. You want to engage your child in a conversational exchange. Using open-ended questions or asking a simple ‘how’ or ‘why’ allows your child to respond with a wide range of words, thoughts, and ideas.3t-logo

L.L.: If you had one wish for parents and children regarding academic and social success, what would it be?

Dr. Dana Suskind: Educational equity. And, that all parents truly understand how powerful they are in building a child’s brain. We believe all families and communities deserve access to this life-changing information. That is the overarching goal of TMW and the purpose of this book.

L.L.: What more can parents (and educators) do? 

Dr. Dana Suskind:  They can understand that learning begins on the first day of life and not the first day of school. And everyone can help spread this important message to more parents, educators, and policy makers.

L.L.: Thank you so very much for taking the time to be with us today, Dr. Suskind…it was much enlightening.

Dr. Dana Suskind: Thank you so much for this opportunity to spread the words!

For more information, or to connect:

Dana_Suskind HeadshotDana Suskind, author of the book, Thirty Million Words: Building A Child’s Brain, (Dutton, September 2015), is Professor of Surgery and Pediatrics at the University of Chicago, Director of the Pediatric Cochlear Implant Program, and Founder and Director of the Thirty Million Words Initiative.  Based on scientific research that shows the critical importance of early language exposure on the developing child, Thirty Million Words helps parents enhance their home language environment in order to optimize their child’s brain development and, therefore, his or her ability to learn.  An evidence-based intervention, Thirty Million Words is supported by a broad coalition of public and private partnerships and is an extension of Dr. Suskind’s Project ASPIRE, which she created to assure that her patients from disadvantaged backgrounds reached their full listening and spoken language potentials.  Dr. Suskind’s ultimate goal, and that of her dedicated team, is to help all children reach their full potentials and to close the ever-widening achievement gap.

[All images retrieved from the TMW website on 9.11.15. Special thanks to the author and publicists for the review copy and coordinating efforts].