Thirty million may sound like a lot of words to be missing from one’s vocabulary. This can be especially unsettling when you account for the fact most kids know up to 1,500 words by the time they are four years old. However, children from different socio-economic classes are exposed to words differently from one another. There’s even a term for this: the “30 Million Word Gap.”
30 Million Word Gap History
During the 1960s War on Poverty, University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley began studying variations in language skills among children of different socio-economic backgrounds. Their research began with preschool students in Kansas City’s low-income Juniper Gardens neighborhood. The duo was taken aback by the communication differences between poor and middle-class children, which they noted by the age of three, and decided to find the origins of these differences.
Hart and Risley recruited 40 families of varying socio-economic backgrounds — three high-income, 10 of middle socio-economic status, 13 of low socioeconomic status, and six on welfare. Their intention was to observe the infants in these families over a series of months.
What they found: patterns of learning through the imitation of their caregiver/guardian, with 86% to 98% of a child’s vocabulary by the age of three coming from their parents. In the years following, Hart and Risley’s findings have provided the ground-work for finding solutions to bridge the word gap and eliminate discrepancies.
Beginning with Babies
Cecilia McGowan, president of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of ALA, tells Parentology, she believes early learning begins at birth. Kids at a disadvantage with language skills will be at a disadvantage and continuously trying to catch up.
“Children who come from backgrounds where parents don’t read as much, don’t have access to materials for their children. So, they arrive at school with 30 million fewer words than children who are more advantaged.”
ALSC has a program called “Babies Need Words Every Day: Talk, Read, Sing, Play,” that aims to bridge this gap. The program has resources that provide literacy skills.
“We believe interaction with the parent or caregiver is essential,” McGowan says. “This aids not only in bonding, but by having children hear words from an adult that comforts them. Sharing that language [safeguards] children from coming to school with a 30-million-word deficit.”
What You Can Do
Dr. Judith J. Carta, director of Bridging the Word Gap Research Network at the University of Kansas, tells Parentology, “One of the most important things a parent can do to promote their child’s later success in school is to encourage their language development.”
Carta says there are five ways to ensure your child isn’t falling into the word gap.
- Realize babies are ready to learn to communicate from day one. When parents respond to children’s sounds and actions, they’re teaching their child they can get their needs met through communication.
- Make daily activities with your child language-learning opportunities. Whether feeding, dressing, bathing or playing with their child, parents can talk about what’s happening or “narrate” the activity.
- Tune in to and talk about objects and events that capture your child’s interest. By helping children make connections between words and things, parents are providing “language nutrition” and building the child’s brain.
- Share books and have conversations with children about the pictures. Books don’t need to have words to be beneficial to children.
- Don’t substitute screen time for conversations. Children learn words and communication through interactions with persons that respond to them.
30 Million Word Gap — Sources
Books for Preschoolers
Books For Kindergartners
NPR: Let’s Stop Talking About The ’30 Million Word Gap’
American Federation of Teachers: Overcoming the Language Gap
Cecilia McGowan, president of the Association for Library Service to Children
Dr. Judith J. Carta, director of Bridging the Word Gap Research Network, University of Kansas