Beyond the Word Gap

Beyond the Word Gap

Beyond the Word Gap – research on the importance of vocabulary and parent-child interaction.
By now most of us are aware that there is a word gap of about 30 million words between children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. This awareness started with a research study in 2003 called “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3,” which was written by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley and appeared in the American Educator. The study was based on parent-child interactions and it showed that children from higher-income families were exposed to 30 million words than children from lower income families. The shock waves from this study included the finding that these differences in language and parent-child interaction has lasting effects on a child’s performance through school and throughout their lives.

Hart and Risley dug deeper and found that 86% to 98% of the words used by a child by age 3 were derived from their parents vocabularies. They also discovered that the patterns of speech, the average number of words spoken, the length of conversations were all similar to their caregivers. Perhaps one of their most important findings was that lower income children heard about 616 words per hour, while higher income children were hearing about 1,200 words per hour and children from professional families were hearing more than 2,000 words per hour.

Most striking was what was being said in the conversations. Higher income families were providing their children with more words of praise compared to lower income families. Professional families were providing a ratio of six encouragements for every discouragement. For working class families, the ratio was two to one: two encouragements for every discouragement.

The bottom line is that the word gap grows as time progresses. As the researchers put it, this ensures “slower growth for children who are economically disadvantaged and accelerated growth from those with more privileged backgrounds. So, in addition to being exposed to less words, the words that lower income children are exposed to are often negative directives. The numbers break down to a lower-income children will hear 125,000 more words of discouragement than encouragement and higher income children will hear 560,000 more words of praise than discouragement. That’s a big disparity.

Many groups are working to close the word and to encourage positive communication between parent and child. One group, Zero to Three, is producing resources and tools to close the gap. Their products include apps, resource guides, curriculum guides and other tools to help close the word gap. There’s also the Thirty Million Words Initiative that is working to help close the gap and bring up the academic and life success of all children.

As you can see, having books in the home is a big part of developing new words, reading, talking, and parent-child interaction. Lectura Books publishes books to help parents, schools and districts to work together to bridge the word gap.

The Latino Family Literacy Project™ can provide training for teachers to help teachers provide a life-changing parent engagement programs to coach parents how to read and discuss literature, learn new vocabulary, and improve the parent-child interaction.