In a moving talk that pointed the way toward breaking down the achievement gap between children of different socioeconomic levels, Dana Suskind, M.D., professor of surgery at the University of Chicago and director of the Pediatric Cochlear Implant program, said that it was her experience as a cochlear implant surgeon and the differences she found among babies who had the surgery and their ability to learn language that led her to found the Thirty Million Words Initiative.

Citing a 1995 study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, Suskind noted that children have less to do with hearing loss than the world into which they are born, one in which some children hear 30 million fewer words by their fourth birthdays than others. That word gap, she said, is critical in children’s ability to learn. Language builds the whole child, she said, and 80 to 85% of a baby’s brain grows from birth to age three.

TMW is a research program that works with parents and caregivers up to a child’s fifth birthday in many cases. “We’re way more than about words,” Suskind said. “We’re interested in the whole parent-child bond.” The program, which includes home visits, helps parents learn how to interact with their children.

For Suskind, her book Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain (Dutton, 2015), is an extension of the program. It is aimed at helping parents understand that they are “the key architects” of their child’s brain. In conjunction with that, she said that there is nothing more powerful than a parent reading a book with a child from day one.

Suskind called talking with children “the richest interaction,” particularly in the parent’s native language, including sign language. But even the most passionate parents have to beware of the dangers of getting overly caught up with their phones. In one slide Suskind showed an image of her daughter holding a box to lock up her mother’s cell phone. Even she needed to go on a “technological diet.”