The Thirty Million Word Gap

I recently read this interesting study, and thought I’d share my thoughts here. In the study, University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley got to know 42 families from various socio-economic backgrounds. After four years, Hart and Risley were able to assess the ways in which daily exchanges and conversations between parents and children shape a child’s language and vocabulary development.

From the study:

The results of the study were more severe than the researchers anticipated. Observers found that 86 percent to 98 percent of the words used by each child by the age of three were derived from their parents’ vocabularies. Furthermore, not only were the words they used nearly identical, but also the average number of words utilized, the duration of their conversations, and the speech patterns were all strikingly similar to those of their caregivers.

After establishing these patterns of learning through imitation, the researchers next analyzed the content of each conversation to garner a better understanding of each child’s experience. They found that the sheer number of words heard varied greatly along socio-economic lines. On average, children from families on welfare were provided half as much experience as children from working class families, and less than a third of the experience given to children from high-income families. In other words, children from families on welfare heard about 616 words per hour, while those from working class families heard around 1,251 words per hour, and those from professional families heard roughly 2,153 words per hour. Thus, children being raised in middle to high income class homes had far more language exposure to draw from.

This study highlights an enormous challenge we face as educators. Children enter our classrooms with significant discrepancies in not only knowledge, but also their skills and experience.

Follow-up studies showed that these differences in language and interaction experience can have lasting effects on a child’s performance later in life, as well. If children from high-income families are being exposed to 30 million more words than children from families on welfare, educators must adapt and find a way to best serve each individual child.

You can read the entire study here.


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