Why the 30 million word gap is so important

Our words count. In more ways than many of us ever realized. It’s been 18 years since Betty Hart and Todd Risley published their landmark study on the giant gap – 30 million – in words heard by young children depending on their socio-economic status. In the last six months, we’ve seen an explosion of new interest in the topic, thanks in part to a recently published study out of Stanford, which found clear evidence of the word gap even at 18 months.

In their three-year study, Hart and Risley found that by age 3, children in higher-income families had heard 30 million more words than children in low-income families.

In follow-up studies with the same children at age 9, Hart and Risley found a very tight link between the academic success of a child and the number of words the child’s parents spoke to the child to age three.

Hart and Risley’s three key findings, summarized by the LENA Research Foundation, were:

  1. The variation in children’s IQs and language abilities is relative to the amount parents speak to their children.
  2. Children’s academic successes at ages 9 and 10 are attributable to the amount of talk they hear from birth to age 3.
  3. Parents of advanced children talk significantly more to their children than parents of children who are not as advanced.

The word gap is important because oral language and vocabulary are intricately connected to reading comprehension. As Esther Quintero points out in her excellent post on the Shanker blog, vocabulary is a child’s entry to knowledge and the world of ideas. Words are how children learn to make sense of the world around them, the key that unlocks knowledge and the world of ideas.

Children exposed to fewer words in their first few years have a harder time when they start school. The word gap usually morphs into an achievement gap that expands over time.

You can’t close the word gap by hurling words at a child.  TV doesn’t help. Neither does conversation between adults. Forget flash cards or vocabulary tests. What counts is the verbal interaction – talking with, singing with, playing with. While it may be a few years before parent and child have an intellectual dialogue, it’s the back-and-forth, serve-and-return that counts.

The interactions aren’t difficult. And there are some wonderful resources to guide parents in how to have the verbal interactions that will help their children grow and succeed. We’ll be adding these to our website as we find them. One of the best I’ve seen recently is from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).