Talk To Me, Baby

A doctor discovers how well children communicate

AGE: 50
OCCUPATION: Speech-Language Pathologist and Sociolinguist
LOCATION: Washington, D.C.
SALARY: $43,000–$50,000
Dr. Debra Jervay-Pendergrass considered a career in pediatrics until she spoke with a friend who majored in speech language pathology and audiology. Jervay-Pendergrass recalls, “It piqued my interest because it involved allied health, education, and language.”

She graduated cum laude from Emerson College in 1973, with a Bachelor of Science in communication disorders. The following year, she earned her master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh. During her last semester, Jervay-Pendergrass worked at The Home for Crippled Children (known today as The Children’s Institute). This was her first experience working with toddlers.

Later, she joined the Montgomery County school system in Maryland, where she participated in an interdisciplinary program that employed teachers, physical and occupational therapists, and family educators who provided services for children up to age 5. “It was one of the few programs [for] infants, toddlers, and preschoolers,” Jervay-Pendergrass says.

The Stories Preschoolers Tell. Throughout her career, Jervay-Pendergrass noticed that infants and toddlers attempted to tell their own stories, but existing measures did not properly assess their methods of communication. Children’s first words were being captured, but their first stories were not. This observation provided the focus for her doctoral dissertation, “The Genesis of Narrative Production,” which explored the pre-narratives that young children tell in their first years through words and gestures.

Her research showed that children develop pre-narrative skills at a much earlier age than originally thought. She received her doctorate in linguistics from Georgetown University in 1992.

Putting Research Into Practice. From 1997 to 2001, Jervay-Pendergrass co-directed the STORIES Project, which translated her research into a curriculum designed to train caregivers and parents to use young children’s “first stories” to build language and literacy skills. It was funded by a $600,000 U.S. Department of Education (Office of Special Education Programs) grant. She hopes to help adults understand that tuning in to “first stories” will help increase a child’s conversation, build relationships, boost vocabulary, and develop early literacy skills.

Currently, Jervay-Pendergrass works with Early Reading First in the Montgomery County school system and is an adjunct professor at Howard University. She also founded her own company, Storytellers123 (www.storytellers.org).

Jervay-Pendergrass is one of 22 professionals who received ZERO TO THREE’s Prestigious Leaders for the 21st Century Fellowship, awarded to professionals who study children up to age 3. Her project is to develop an instrument that will examine pre-narratives, interaction, and early discourse skills among young children.

“I’m passionate about the stories children tell during the first three years of life, and helping people recognize [these stories] and use them for the powerful tools that they are.”

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