Department of Education

Providence talks: A citywide partnership to address early childhood language development

In Studies in Educational Evaluation, Professors Kenneth Wong and Crystal Thomas evaluate Providence Talks, a partnership between the city of Providence and local non-profit service providers that helps develop language environments within homes for young children.

Early Childhood Education is a rapidly developing field with far-reaching policy and research implications. Research has long indicated that many children, particularly in lower socioeconomic classes, begin kindergarten already behind their peers. In an effort to close this gap, the City of Providence launched Providence Talks, with support from the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ 2013 Mayoral Challenge Grand Prize for Innovation.

Providence Talks is a free, early intervention program that enrolls children between 2-30 months of age from families living in Providence, RI. It helps caretakers learn about the importance of speaking with their children and supports them in their ability to improve the language environments within their home. Providence Talks uses a Digital Language Processor (DLP), developed by LENA Research Foundation, that children wear to record their interactions with adults and to capture a comprehensive picture of a child’s auditory environment. Home visitors share the results from the DLPs during bi-weekly coaching visits so parents and caregivers can quickly see a picture of their home auditory environment and how it may or may not be improving.

In partnership with the City of Providence and local non-profit service providers, Professor Kenneth Wong has led the third-party evaluation effort for this initiative since it was launched. In a recently published article, “Providence Talks: A Citywide Partnership to Address Early Childhood Language Development,” Studies in Educational Evaluation (volume 64, 2020), Professor Wong and Professor Crystal Thomas discussed the innovative design and the citywide scale of Providence Talks and the evaluation’s key findings.

The study used a treatment-control research design. It included 367 Spanish-speaking and 208 English-speaking households in the treatment population and 23 Spanish-speaking and 78 English-speaking households in the control group. Professors Wong and Thomas found that Providence Talks improved the home auditory environment for parents and primary care takers who started with a lower level of Adult Word Count and Conversational Turns. This study also showed the benefits of having design variations in Providence Talks – the Home Visiting and the Playgroup models, both demonstrated success in improving the home auditory environment for participants. Further, based on self-assessment, parents in both intervention models increased their sense of self-efficacy, providing evidence that Providence Talks may serve as a strategy to promote parental engagement. Given Providence Talks’ scale, design, and efforts to recruit the targeted populations in diverse neighborhoods, this study concludes that Providence Talks constitutes a promising strategy to disrupt the status quo to advance early learning for all children. Based in part on this study’s findings, the Bloomberg Philanthropies announced its new investment in project replication in five cities, including Birmingham, Detroit, Hartford, Louisville, and Virginia Beach last fall.

To read the full study, "Providence talks: A citywide partnership to address early childhood language development," click here.