Before they turn four, children from more affluent backgrounds will have heard 30 million more words than those from low-income households. This “word gap” has had a profound impact on the worlds of parenting and education ever since it was first studied by two University of Kansas scientists, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, in the 1980s.
In collaboration with a team of trained observers, the pair tracked 53 families over three years, recording every spoken interaction by families for an hour every month. The results were clear: Parents from higher socio-economic backgrounds (typically more educated and wealthier) talked more with their kids, using a more diverse vocabulary. Even the kids of wealthier parents spoke more words—and more different kinds of words—than disadvantaged parents. When family talk is rare, phrases shared between parent and child tend to be fairly shallow—kids hear phrases like, “Get it,” “What’s this?,” and “Put that over there,” rather than “Get your book and we’ll read” or “Put your ball in the basket.”
It’s not ‘dog’ versus ‘dog dog dog.’ It’s ‘dog’ versus ‘the dog has a big fluffy tail and he goes bow wow.’
The cultural realities fueling the word gap are as present today as they were in the 1980s: The lower one’s income, the higher one’s stress and fatigue levels—and the harder it is to schedule time to talk. The researchers noticed a language processing gap of six months between kids from high-socioeconomic-status homes and those from low-socioeconomic-status homes by the time the kids were just two years old. Once they got to school, the difference between the two groups was staggering.
Numerous studies have also demonstrated that children’s spoken language, driven by socioeconomic status, is one of the most robust predictors of their later academic success, high school graduation, and lifelong earning potential.
“Children’s efficiency in interpreting spoken language from moment to moment…