In the first three years of life, children of low-income families hear an astounding 30 million fewer total words compared to their more affluent peers, studies show. As a result of the word disparity, these children frequently have weaker vocabulary and reading skills once they hit school age. This fact follows them all the way to graduation, as they have lower rates of going to college and a tougher time finding employment.
“Their vocabulary and literacy skills often never catch up,” said Aimee Ketchum, a student in Philadelphia University’s Occupational Therapy Clinical Doctorate (OTD) Program. “A critical time is being missed.”
The government took notice of this gap, and in 2014 President Obama instituted a call to action. In part, he sought the use of technology to help overcome this 30-million-word gulf.
One such initiative, Bridging the Word Gap Challenge led by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), aims to create a tool to help parents and caregivers talk and engage more with young children.
Ketchum saw an opportunity to combine her skills in early childhood development and app creation and entered the competition.
The judges loved what they saw in Ketchum’s Word Gap App proposal and named her as one of the 10 phase I winners. Along with collecting the $10,000 prize, she now begins small-scale testing and works toward the $25,000 phase II purse. If she gets beyond this stage, she participates in large-scale testing and rollout. One grand prize winner will receive $100,000, along with HRSA’s seal of approval and marketing push.
“I want to help give every child an opportunity for the best start possible,” said Ketchum, a pediatric occupational therapist who owns the early childhood development company Aimee’s Babies LLC. “Being armed with education is so empowering. You feel like you’re being a better parent and doing the best you can for your child.”
Ketchum’s Word Gap App, to be available in English and Spanish, will create awareness and educate parents on the importance of interacting with their children (newborns to age 3). Using video, photos and graphics, it will show scenarios of when to talk to the child using positive language. The app also will feature suggestions of songs, nursery rhymes and finger plays and will send alerts to remind people to interact throughout the day.
“The whole app will be based on a point system to incentivize users,” explained Ketchum, a mother of two.
For example, people will receive points for watching videos, trying new things and posting the types of interaction on social media. They will be able to use points to redeem other Aimee Babies’ products, such as her app on how to perform baby massage and a DVD on first-year milestones. In addition, the app will generate encouraging text messages based on the number of points earned.
Ketchum looks forward to the next stage in the app’s development, and she said she owes a great deal to PhilaU’s Clinical OTD Program for its assistance in putting together a test plan and developing the analytics and qualitative data to support Word Gap.
This competition experience dovetails nicely with the skills Ketchum is learning at PhilaU, said Marie-Christine Potvin, PhD, OTR, associate director of the PhilaU Clinical OTD Program.
“Aimee is a student who strives for excellence,” she said. “Being a recipient of the first phase of this grant is a great accomplishment and a recognition of her professional expertise.”