The Abecedarian Approach

Adult & child with book


The Abecedarian Approach is a suite of teaching and learning strategies that were developed to improve the early development and later academic achievement of children from at-risk and under-resourced families.

Scientific studies have shown that the strategies can prevent the very early downward trend in cognitive development typical of many disadvantaged children. As seen in the figure below, almost all of the children in both the randomized experimental and control groups of the first Abecedarian study were in the normal cognitive range at the beginning of the study. Most of those who received the Abecedarian intervention (the upper line) continued to stay in the normal cognitive range. But more than half of those who did not receive the intervention (the declining lower line) fell out of the normal range by 36 months of age. The difference between the groups was statistically significant by the time the children were 18 months of age (Martin, Ramey, & Ramey, 1990)

Percent of children in normal IQ

The long term positive results found in three randomized, controlled trials of the Abecedarian Approach are now known throughout the world and form a major part of the evidence that supports our current belief in the efficacy of high quality early childhood programs.  Ongoing follow-up of the original research samples has demonstrated long-term:

 Recently, a randomized study in India, Pakistan, and Zambia found that children from low-resource families who received the Abecedarian Approach delivered through bi-weekly home visits improved in cognitive development over the first 3 years of life. By 36 months of age the children from low-resource families caught up with and equalled their higher-resource peers in cognitive development. (Bann, Wallendar, Do, et al., 2016

Since 1972, the Abecedarian Approach has been used successfully in center-based care, home visiting programs, family day care homes, and public school pre-K settings. Today, the Abecedarian Approach is recognized as an evidence-based, proven program that integrates basic principles of human learning and development into a fun, affordable, and effective approach to early childhood education.

View this excerpt about the Abecedarian Approach from a National Geographic documentary.

The Abecedarian Approach clearly demonstrates that early interventions can create a lasting change in children’s lives. The broad program includes focused language interactions, play-based learning, enriched care, and stable relationships among children and caregivers. Within the framework of stable relationships, the Abecedarian elements of Language Priority, Conversational Reading, LearningGames, and Enriched Caregiving create a learning environment that can support children’s development to their full potential. 

Watch as Dr. Joseph Sparling, one of the founders of the Abecedarian Approach, provides an overview of the Approach.

In the Abecedarian Approach, at-risk children experience multiple individualized games, reading sessions, and information-filled caregiving/language interactions daily with responsive adults. From this early experience, the child expects to receive adult input, to pay attention, to respond, and to succeed. This is the social, attitudinal, and learning dispositions advantage the child brings to school. Moreover, the child enters school developmentally on track (from mastering all the knowledge and skills incorporated in the games) – and does not have to play catch-up. This is the cognitive advantage that enables the child to benefit from each succeeding experience as it presents itself.

The Abecedarian Approach consists of 4 interconnected elements that support children’s general development and especially language, which is the overall priority of the program. 
Girl on adult lap Language Priority – a commitment to make every experience an opportunity for talking, listening, and learning language.
Adult reading with baby. Conversational Reading – reading to one or two children at a time, encouraging dialogue and interaction.
Girl cutting. LearningGames – 200 experiences or games played between an adult and one or two children.
Adult helping child dress. Enriched Caregiving – intentionally adding emotional connection and educational content to the daily, repeated routines of care. 

The Abecedarian Approach has shown itself to be a powerful tool to improve the competence and quality of life for children from low resource environments. It produces positive effects in many areas of children’s development beginning in the second year of life and extending into adulthood. Researchers continue to learn more about the magnitude and durability of these results, but it is clear that the children who have participated in Abecedarian programs have achieved remarkable success as a consequence of having intensive interventions early in life.

Read a history of the Abecedarian Approach presented by Nova of the US Public Broadcasting System (PBS): Orstander, 2015.

View a TED talk about the Abecedarian Approach: Gallagher, 2015.

Visit the website Community of Change: The ripple effect of an enriched early child development initiative, which documents a research study into how the Abecedarian Approach influenced the children, families, and caregivers of a Canadian child care centre.


Logos of Red River College and the Abecedarian Approach