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What is the “30 Million Word Gap”?

By Cara Barthelette, MS, CCC/SLP, Pediatric Speech Therapist

The \"30 million word gap\" refers to a research study conducted by psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley. Their study showed that children from lower-income families hear a staggering 30 million fewer words than children from higher-income families by the time they are 4 years old.

Not surprisingly, this word gap puts children from lower-income families at a significant disadvantage. Their vocabularies are approximately half the size of their higher-income counterparts, and they are unprepared for the early years of school curriculum. What’s more, the word gap also has long-term effects on education, career, and family.

The researchers came to this conclusion through visits with 42 families from varied income groups. They observed conversations between parents and children and tracked those against income measures including household income and welfare status. The total study group included 13 high-income families, 10 middle class families, 13 families of lower income, and six families on welfare. Researchers observed each family for one-hour sessions every month when the children were between the ages of 7 months and 3 years.

\"The results of the study were far more severe than anyone could have anticipated,\" according to a release announcing the study results. \"Observers founds that 86 percent to 98 percent of the words used by each child by the age of three were derived from their parent\'s vocabularies.... 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.\"

These findings emphasize how critical it is to talk, sing, and read aloud to children daily starting from birth through the preschool years to promote not only language development but overall brain development.

At the time of the study\'s publication, Hart was a professor of human development at the University of Kansas, and Risley was a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Sources:

  • American Federation of Teachers
  • The Early Catastrophe. Rice University
  • The Thirty Million Word Gap.

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