Key to Vocabulary Gap Is Quality of Conversation, Not Dearth of Words

Key to Vocabulary Gap Is Quality of Conversation, Not Dearth of Words

Sarah D. Sparks

Thirty million words.

For 20 years, a chasm of words has yawned between the children of college-educated professionals and those of high school dropouts, quantifying the academic disadvantage faced by the latter group long before they even start school. That statistic has led to a generation of vocabulary-centered interventions to close achievement gaps, including the federal Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, the Clinton Foundation's "Too Small to Fail" initiative, and many others.

The "30 million-word" gap is arguably the most famous but least significant part of a landmark study, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young Children, by the late University of Kansas child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley. As the work turns 20 this year, new research and more advanced measuring techniques have cast new light on long-overshadowed, and more nuanced, findings about exactly how adult interactions with infants and young children shape their early language development.

"We don't want to just distill it down to a numbers game, because ... the important message to take away is not the poor versus wealthy families, but the opportunities children have to interact with rich language," said Dale Walker, an associate research professor in early language and communication and the director of the Juniper Gardens Children's Project in Kansas City, Kan. She worked with Ms. Hart and Mr. Risley and continues the line of research.

"It's not just throwing words at children, but making sure they hear new concepts, things of interest to them, so their brains make those connections earlier," she said.

By the Numbers

In Meaningful Differences, Ms. Hart and Mr. Risley tracked 42 infants just learning to talk, and their families, including 13 middle-class households, 10 each of professional and working-class backgrounds, and six living on public assistance. From the time the children were roughly 7 or 8 months to 3 years old, the researchers observed them for an hour a month, tracking how parents and children interacted and the children's total word exposure.

The researchers found that, on average, children from professional families heard more than 2,150 words an hour. Those in working-class families heard about 1,250 words. Children in families on welfare heard little more than 600 words an hour.

"It's not just the word gap; it's what you use language for," said Barbara T. Bowman, a child-development professor and co-founder of the Chicago-based Erikson Institute.

Children of professionals also heard twice as many unique words, and twice as many "encouraging" versus "discouraging" conversations ("What did you think of that?" versus "Don't touch that," for example.) By the end of the study, more than 85 percent of the vocabulary, conversational patterns, and language complexity of the 3-year-olds had come from their families, and children of professionals had vocabularies more than twice as large as peers in families receiving welfare.

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