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“Thirty Million Words” Initiative Empowers Parents To Use Everyday Conversation As A Tool To Build Strong Brains

The Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges famously said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

Bibliophiles might say amen, but books are barriers, not passports, for the estimated 36 million adults in the United States who can’t read above a third-grade level.

In Cuyahoga County, 400,000 people — almost half the population — read and calculate below an 8th-grade level, which bars them from standard job training; while 67 percent of Cleveland kindergarteners arrive “not fully prepared to start.”

Into this grim turf – so far from Borges’ Paradise – rides a short woman, Dr. Dana Suskind, who founded the Thirty Million Words Initiative in Chicago.

She came to Cleveland as a guest of the Literacy Cooperative, arriving with a PowerPoint and film clips to emphasize that there is a fix to the 30 million word gap. This is the chasm children experience by age four growing up in homes without much talking, compared to homes awash in words.

“Not since the dark ages has so much human potential been left off the table,” Suskind said, quoting her colleague John List, an economist at the University of Chicago.  

“What happens outside the hospital is what really matters,” Suskind told a lunch gathering in downtown Cleveland. “The critical factor is language – the power of the parent or caregiver talking to build the child’s brain.”

Because 85 percent of brain development occurs in the first three years, smart babies are not born, but made through interactive speech, Suskind said. She came to this realization by studying the research, spurred by her initial surprise as a cochlear implant surgeon when some of her young deaf patients thrived when she implanted a device that enabled hearing and other children made almost no gains at all.  The reason turned out to be how rich the speech was at home.

“Many families haven’t been exposed to the powerful science that shows that their language is the key architect for their children’s brain growth,” Suskind told National Public Radio. “Our focus is empowering parents with that knowledge.”

The vehicle is the Three T’s: Tune in, Talk More and Take Turns. From birth on, parents who engage with whatever has caught a child’s attention, bring rich language to their daily interactions and begin to echo and respond to their baby’s sounds are building hundreds of thousands of neural connections – without buying anything at all.

Asked about the ubiquitous cellphone, Suskind said she now notices an eerie quiet when she walks into waiting rooms. “To be truthful, it’s a little bit scary to me,” she said. “I think we need a fourth-T: Turn off your technology.”

Suskind praised Dr. Robert Needleman, a Cleveland pediatrician in the audience. He pioneered “Reach Out and Read,” which brings books into the lives of young families through well-child appointments.

“We’re working on a maternity ward intervention where new mothers and fathers learn about the power of language,” Suskind said. “We’re working in pediatricians’ offices, home-visiting programs as well as children’s museums and libraries. Our program is about getting this message and these science-based programs to parents — to really, hopefully, get it into the groundwater.”

The Chicago surgeon “really has changed the landscape with her Thirty Million Words Initiative,” said Kristen Baird Adams, chief operating officer in the PNC Office of the Regional President.  The bank has pledged $350 million over 25 years in its Grow Up Great program.

“All the pediatricians, all the health care workers, all the teachers in the world knowing the importance of language in a child’s first three years means nothing if the parents don’t know,” Suskind concludes in her book. “When I began Thirty Million Words, I would look at the babies’ heads and imagine the rapid firing of developing neurons just at that moment. Now I look at the adults who care for them and think, ‘You are more powerful than you ever imagined and I hope you know it.’”

The Literacy Cooperative hosted its largest gathering — about 175 community educators, librarians, doctors and literacy workers – to disseminate Suskind’s message. It partners with two pertinent initiatives locally: Reach out and Read and the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, which delivers a book a month to a child from birth to age five.  More information on both is available at

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